National Intersex Meeting –
From medical to social issues,
government must act
By Kellyn Botha
South Africa, 13 December 2017
Monday, 11 December saw an historic discussion on the promotion and preservation of human rights for intersex persons in South Africa. The National Intersex Meeting, organised in collaboration with Intersex South Africa (ISSA), the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development (DOJ&CD), and the Foundation for Human Rights (FHR), saw discussion between activists, government representatives, as well as legal and medical professionals, and is thought to be the first of its kind in the country.
"There is no doubt that intersex people in South Africa face enormous stigma," said John Jeffrey, Deputy Minister of the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development, who later emphasized the need for intersex people to be central in informing policy and implored delegates to use the opportunity to "tell government what you need the law to say." Jeffrey also noted that future meetings of this nature should look into including the Departments of Home Affairs and Basic Education, as intersex persons often face difficulties in amending the gender on their documentation, with no other options than male or female when indicating sex, and rarely get represented in biology or sex education.
Other major challenges faced by intersex persons include pathologisation and human rights violations in medical settings. Crystal Hendricks, an intersex activist from ISSA, recounted how she was used as an example for medical students to observe without giving consent or explanation, and another time when “I was told to put this cloth over my head, and you know when a doctor says you must do something you do it, but I didn’t know what it was for. I put the cloth over my face and then heard snapping! They were taking photos of my body. I was just a kid!”
Intersex children also often face nonconsensual, medically unnecessary surgeries on their genitalia designed to conform the body to arbitrary standards of male and female, also known as intersex genital mutilation. Families are rarely informed adequately about the reasons or far-reaching consequences of such procedures and intersex children struggle to access their medical records, psychological support, or legal redress when they grow older and seek information. In rural areas, newborns displaying visible intersex characteristics are often killed or labelled the work of witchcraft.
These issues were a large part of the focus, with activists calling for clear guidelines and improved systems of education for medical practitioners, and for families in the event that they might have an intersex child. There were also calls for increased protections against such glaring violations of human rights.
In her session on the South African legal environment on the human rights of intersex people, Tshego Phala of the Pro-bono department at Webber Wentzel Linklaters expressed horror and concern at the extent of human rights abuses that came up when intersex delegates recounted their own experiences with medical practitioners. She pointed to existing legislation criminalizing Female Genital Mutilation (FGM) and forced-sterilisation which can be amended to explicitly include intersex people, and the constitution already bars discrimination based on sex and gender.
“It’s not a substitute for a clear, holistic, dedicated law for intersex people but to implement new laws can take a long time, and until then we need to use other tools we have at our disposal to protect intersex people right now,” she said. South Africa has, on paper, one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, but the law has often failed intersex persons.
Later, a panel was convened in which medical and psychological professionals spoke further on the medical issues affecting the rights of intersex people. Overwhelmingly the focus of the day was on the medicalisation and pathologisation of intersex people, and many of the issues raised by activists and delegates underscored exactly how serious these issues are.
However, the challenges faced by intersex persons are wide-ranging. In his final address to delegates John Jeffrey emphasised the need for a holistic, intersectional approach to ensure broader inclusion of intersex persons into human rights discourse, and a more specific set of protocols for dealing with intersex rights protections and abuses.
Delegates ended the meeting by breaking into three groups to craft practical short, medium and long-term solutions to the issues raised around medical interventions, gaps in legal protections, as well as awareness and education. A summary of these points is currently being drafted into a set of demands for action by ISSA and Iranti, to which we can hold the state and other stakeholders accountable, and against which we can track progress nationally.
*Kellyn Botha is the Writer and Social Media Officer at Iranti