Intersex human rights

Participants at the third International Intersex Forum, Malta, in December 2013

Intersex people are born with sex characteristics, such as chromosomes, gonads, or genitals, that, according to the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, "do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies."[1]

Intersex people face stigmatisation and discrimination from birth, particularly when an intersex variation is visible. In some countries (particularly in Africa and Asia) this may include infanticide, abandonment and the stigmatization of families. Mothers in East Africa may be accused of witchcraft, and the birth of an intersex child may be described as a curse.[2][3][4]

Intersex infants and children, such as those with ambiguous outer genitalia, may be surgically and/or hormonally altered to fit perceived more socially acceptable sex characteristics. However, this is considered controversial, with no firm evidence of good outcomes.[5] Such treatments may involve sterilization. Adults, including elite female athletes, have also been subjects of such treatment.[6][7] Increasingly these issues are recognized as human rights abuses, with statements from UN agencies,[8][9] the Australian parliament,[10] and German and Swiss ethics institutions.[11] Intersex organizations have also issued joint statements over several years, including the Malta declaration by the third International Intersex Forum.

Implementation of human rights protections in legislation and regulation has progressed more slowly. In 2011, Christiane Völling won the first successful case brought against a surgeon for non-consensual surgical intervention.[12] In 2015, the Council of Europe recognized for the first time a right for intersex persons to not undergo sex assignment treatment.[13] In April 2015, Malta became the first country to outlaw nonconsensual medical interventions to modify sex anatomy, including that of intersex people.[14][15]

Other human rights and legal issues include the right to life, protection from discrimination, access to justice and reparations, access to information, and legal recognition.[13][16] Few countries so far protect intersex people from discrimination, or provide access to reparations for harmful practices.[13][16]

Intersex and human rights

ILGA conference 2018, group photo to mark Intersex Awareness Day

Research indicates a growing consensus that diverse intersex bodies are normal—if relatively rare—forms of human biology,[17] and human rights institutions are placing increasing scrutiny on medical practices and issues of discrimination against intersex people. A 2013 first international pilot study. Human Rights between the Sexes, by Dan Christian Ghattas,[18][19] found that intersex people are discriminated against worldwide:

Intersex individuals are considered individuals with a "disorder" in all areas in which Western medicine prevails. They are more or less obviously treated as sick or "abnormal", depending on the respective society.

The Council of Europe highlights several areas of concern:

  • unnecessary "normalising" treatment of intersex persons, and unnecessary pathologisation of variations in sex characteristics.
  • unnecessary medicalisation is said to also impact a right to life.
  • inclusion in equal treatment and hate crime law; facilitating access to justice and reparations.
  • access to information, medical records, peer and other counselling and support.
  • respecting self-determination in gender recognition, through expeditious access to official documents.[13]

However, the implementation, codification and enforcement of intersex human rights remains slow. These actions take place through legislation, regulation and court cases, detailed below.


Multiple organizations have highlighted appeals to LGBT rights recognition that fail to address the issue of unnecessary "normalising" treatments on intersex children, using the portmanteau term "pinkwashing". In June 2016, Organisation Intersex International Australia pointed to contradictory statements by Australian governments, suggesting that the dignity and rights of LGBTI (LGBT and intersex) people are recognized while, at the same time, harmful practices on intersex children continue.[20]

In August 2016, Zwischengeschlecht described actions to promote equality or civil status legislation without action on banning "intersex genital mutilations" as a form of pinkwashing.[21] The organization has previously highlighted evasive government statements to UN Treaty Bodies that conflate intersex, transgender and LGBT issues, instead of addressing harmful practices on infants.[22]