There’s a village in the Caribbean where ‘girls’ grow penises at age 12
Some children who are born with vaginas go on to grow penises due to a rare genetic disorder.
In a rural village in the Dominican Republic, an estimated one in 90 children who seem to be girls grow male genitalia during puberty.
The children are known as Guevedoces – which translates literally 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 previously been documented for a 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.
The rare children 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.
When these children hit puberty the body is flooded with another surge of testosterone, causing a penis to develop and testes to 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.”
Many of the young people affected by the change are bullied.
“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, there do not seem to be other obvious effects of the condition.
The penis is usually 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.
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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.”
Similar cases have also been seen in the Sambian villages of Papua New Guinea.
However in these villages the people affected are viewed as “flawed males” and shunned from the community.