What is Intersex?

What is Intersex?

“Intersex” is an umbrella term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male. It is a general term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations.

For example, a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or an individual may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female types—for example, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia.

Intersex anatomy may or may not show up at birth. Some people live and die with intersex anatomy without anyone (including themselves) ever knowing. Sometimes a person isn’t found to have intersex anatomy until she or he reaches the age of puberty, or finds himself an infertile adult.

According to experts, between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits. Being intersex relates to biological sex characteristics, and is distinct from a person’s sexual orientation or gender identity. An intersex person may be straight, gay, lesbian, bisexual or asexual, and may identify as female, male, both or neither. It has become common practice to subject intersex children to unnecessary surgical and other procedures for the purpose of trying to make their appearance conform to binary sex stereotypes. These often irreversible procedures can cause permanent infertility, pain, incontinence, loss of sexual sensation, and lifelong mental suffering. Their plight doesn’t end here: some intersex people face discrimination in receiving official documents like birth certificates. They are often subjected to abuse – physical and mental, if they are perceived not to conform to gender norms.


Prohibit medically unnecessary surgery and procedures on the sex characteristics of intersex children, protect their physical integrity and respect their autonomy.

  • Ensure that intersex people and their families receive adequate counselling and support, including from peers.
  • Prohibit discrimination on the basis of intersex traits, characteristics or status, including in education, health care, employment, sports and access to public services, and address such discrimination through relevant anti- discrimination initiatives.
  • Ensure that human rights violations against intersex people are investigated and alleged perpetrators prosecuted, and that victims of such violations have access to effective remedy, including redress and compensation.
  • National human rights bodies should research and monitor the human rights situation of intersex people.
  • Enact laws to provide for facilitated procedures to amend sex markers on the birth certificates and official documents of intersex people.
  • Provide health care personnel with training on the health needs and human rights of intersex people and the appropriate advice and care to give to parents and intersex children, being respectful of the intersex person’s autonomy, physical integrity and sex characteristics.
  • Ensure that members of the judiciary, immigration officers, law enforcement, healthcare, education and other officials and personnel are trained to respect and provide equal treatment to intersex persons.
  • Ensure that intersex people and organisations are consulted and participate in the development of research, legislation and policies that impact on their rights.
  • Do not make assumptions about the sexual orientation or gender identity of intersex people. You, your friends and other individuals can make a difference too:
  • Speak out when you see any form of discrimination or violence against intersex people.
  • Remember that intersex people may have any sexual orientation and gender identity.

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