INTERSEX GENITAL MUTILATION
Belgian law does not protect intersex children from non-consensual surgery. However, just like female genital mutilation, these interventions are justified by societal norms and not by medical need. GAMS Belgium rejects the cultural relativism that would call for condemning FGM, including medicalized FGM, while ignoring the human rights of intersex people. We support the intersex rights associations in their demand that the Belgian State recognizes the right to physical integrity of intersex minors.
What is intersex?
Intersex describes a wide range of natural body variations. Intersex people are born with sexual characteristics that are either:
- Female and male at the same time
- Not fully female or male;
- Neither female nor male.
The intersex body may appear from birth, through childhood, adolescence or even adulthood. Sometimes the differences will be so small that the person will never be aware of their intersex status.
Variations in sex characteristics can manifest themselves in many ways:
- A child may be born with a larger clitoris or a smaller penis;
- A child is born with a typical female appearance, but is found to have internal testicles;
- A child with a typical male appearance has a uterus or ovaries;
- A girl will not start menstruating or a boy will start menstruating;
- After puberty a person has secondary sexual characteristics (breast, Adam’s apple, muscle mass, fat distribution, etc.) usually associated with the other sex;
These variations are natural and more common than one might think. It is estimated that at least one in two hundred people are intersex. Some sources even claim that up to 1.7% of the population has a variation in sex characteristics. (International Intersex Organisation – IIO.
A harmful practice
When a child is born with a variation of sexual characteristics, the parents are asked to choose the sex. In Belgium, they have three months to define it.
Surgical interventions for ‘sexual normalisation’ (later referred to as intersex genital mutilation, IGM), accompanied by hormonal treatments and behavioral instructions according to the assigned sex, can take place. The consequences are an often irreversible gender assignment, which can lead to infertility, severe pain and psychological suffering.
In the majority of cases, these GIMs are not justified by a medical need. They aim to make the child conform to sex and gender norms. It is assumed that the persons concerned would have difficulties in social adaptation without these treatments.
These treatments are regularly applied at a very early age, including to infants. Informed consent is therefore not an option. Moreover, gender identity has not yet been expressed. Let us not forget that gender identities are multiple and fluid, and therefore not necessarily applicable to the sexes.
These normalizing practices are illegal, criminally punishable and contrary to fundamental rights and medical ethics.
Belgian State urged to ban IGM
At its 80th session, the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) questioned the Belgian State on intersex and intersex genital mutilation (IGM), under the heading “Harmful Practices”, along with FGM and forced marriages. The CRC found that Belgian intersex children are subject to medically unjustified procedures. It calls on Belgium to prohibit any medical treatment or surgery “where these procedures can be postponed, without risk to their health, until the children have the capacity to give informed consent“.
Representatives of intersex people, such as the International Intersex Organisation, Genres Pluriels and Intersex Belgium, support CRC’s demand.
*This text is adapted from the chapter “Belgian law protects all children from genital mutilation…” in the guide “Mutilations sexuelles: déconstruire les idées reçues”, published by SC-MGF and GAMS in 2016 and reissued in 2021.
- Committee on the Rights of the Child, Concluding observations on the combined fifth and sixth reports of Belgium. Nations Unies. 2019.
- EHRENREICH, N. and BARR, M., Intersex Surgery, Female Genital Cutting, and the Selective Condemnation of ‘Cultural Practices’. Harvard Civil Rights-Civil Liberties Law Review. 2005
- European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, The Fundamental Rights Situation of Intersex People.FRA FOCUS. 2015, consulté le 10/10/2016.
- Genre Pluriels et Intersexe Belgium, «Proposition de résolution visant à adapter la législation belge et à encadrer la pratique médicale afin de garantir les droits fondamentaux des personnes intersexes ». 2019.
- GUTERMAN L. Why Are Doctors Still Performing Genital Surgery on Infants? [blogpost]. Open Society Foundation. 2012, consulté le 10/10/2016.
- ILGA Europe and OII Europe, Protecting Intersex People In Europe: A Toolkit For Law And Policymakers. 2018, consulté le 20/10/2019.
- OII Europe, Parents toolkit : Soutenir son enfant intersexe. 2018.
- STEINFELD, R., & EARP, B. D., How different are male, female, and intersex genital cutting?The Conversation. 2017.
- SVOBODA, J. S. Promoting genital autonomy by exploring commonalities between male, female, intersex, and cosmetic female genital cutting. Global Discourse, 3(2), 237-255. 2013.
- TOUNKARA, M-L. « Légiférer l’intersexualité en Belgique : un défi pour notre société». Mémoire Master en Droit, UCL.
- WILSON, G., (n.d). Organisation Intersex International (OII) Australie. Consulté le 10/10/2016.