The ‘girls’ who grow penises at the age of 12
In a village in the Dominican Republic, an estimated one in fifty children are born ‘girls’ before growing male genitalia during puberty.
The children are known as Guevedoces – roughly translated as “penis-at-12” – referring to the age they are when their physical appearance starts to change.
This extraordinary intersex condition – known medically as 5-alpha-reductase deficiency – has been documented for a new BBC2 series ‘Countdown to Life’ which takes a look at how we develop in the womb and how early changes impact us for the rest of our lives.
Many children who live in the village of Salinas, located in the southern part of the Dominican Republic, are affected by the condition – with as many as 1 in 50 boys in the area being raised as girls until they went on to develop external testes and a penis.
At birth, they have nothing except what appears to be a vagina, and it is only as they mature that it becomes apparent all is not as it seems.
Dr Julianne Imperato-McGinley, originally investigated the phenomenon in the early 1970s.
Dr Imperato found that while genetically male, Guevedoces lack the enzyme – 5-alpha reductase – that converts testosterone to dihydro-testosterone and helps form the penis.
This means that boys in the area are born looking like females.
However, when they hit puberty – and the body is flooded with another surge of testosterone – the body this time responds and the penis develops and testes descend.
One child affected by the condition, Johnny – once known as Felicita – told the BBC he fought bullies who targeted him when the change started.
“I remember I used to wear a little red dress,” he said. “I was born at home instead of in a hospital. They didn’t know what sex I was.
“I went to school and I used to wear my skirt. I never liked to dress as a girl. When they bought me girls toys I never bothered playing with them. All I wanted to do was play with the boys.”
“They used to say I was a devil, nasty things, bad words and I had no choice but to fight them because they were crossing the line,” he said.
“I’d like to get married and have children, a partner who will stand by me through good and bad.”
Once Guevedoces have hit puberty, then they seem to be able to live their lives as normal.
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The penis is a little undersized, but apart from that is normally fully functioning, with the testes even producing sperm.
Further research has shown that the phenomenon is not limited to Salinas alone.
In a 2005, Elizabeth Kelley wrote that following the original research, reports suggested that this was also common in the Sambian villages of Papua New Guinea, where the locals called the children “turnims”, meaning “expected to become men”.
“The Sambians view these children as flawed males; the children are rejected and humiliated by their families and society,” Kelley wrote.
“On the other hand, in the Dominican Republic, the birth of a pseudohermaphrodite is fully accepted and during puberty, the child’s physical transformation into a male is marked by joyous celebration.”