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The World Health Organisation might have just made things worse for intersex people

Jess Glass June 20, 2018
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The WHO is the main global body on health issues (FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)

The World Health Organisation has sparked concern from intersex rights activists by maintaining existing guidelines on intersex people and even adding a new diagnosis for intersex children.

On Monday, the World Health Organisation (WHO) announced that they will remove the classification of being transgender as a mental illness, in a move that has been widely praised by trans rights activists.

In the 11th revision of the International Classification for Diseases (ICD), a key document used by governments around the world as a basis for their health policies and practice, the WHO moved being transgender from a mental health issue to one of sexual health.

Trans rights protestors (MARVIN RECINOS/AFP/Getty Images)

While this move has been widely praised and is part of the first edit of the ICD since 1992, intersex activists have expressed concerns about another part of the ICD that was not edited.

Intersex is the term used to refer to people with variations of physical characteristics – such as chromosomes or reproductive organs – that do not fit as either traditionally defined “male” or “female”.

OII Europe, one of the main intersex advocacy groups in the continent, highlight that the WHO did not remove the classification of intersex as a disorder, despite criticism of the ICD from human rights bodies and intersex people themselves.

The intersex pride flag (Creative Commons)

Dan Christian Ghattas, Executive Director of OII Europe said on Tuesday: “Removing trans identities from the list of mental health chapter is an important and overdue step.

“However, we are very concerned that WHO has let the chance pass to depathologise intersex people and hence to work towards decreasing human rights violations intersex people face in medical settings.”

The original classification of intersex as a disorder was maintained despite many intersex activists working with the WHO in order to try and remove the stigma from the way intersex people are viewed in society.

As well as failing to remove being intersex as an illness, other intersex activists criticised a new diagnosis added by the WHO that focuses directly on the treatment of intersex children.

Intersex children are often operated on (PHILIPPE HUGUEN/AFP/Getty Images)

Many intersex people are non-consensually operated upon shortly after birth or as small children in order to give them binary “male” or “female” genitalia, which has been proven to cause significant distress later in life.

Kitty Anderson, the co-chair of OII Europe, criticised the updated ICD for the new diagnosis which could now increase the number of intersex children operated on without their consent.

Anderson said: “The ICD-11 establishes a new diagnosis, called ‘Gender incongruence of childhood’, which has been strongly opposed by trans and intersex experts alike.

“In 2015 a group of intersex experts already pointed towards the fact that this diagnosis has no medical utility and carries the risk of promoting stigma and discrimination.”

Activists are concerned about the new diagnosis (Creative Commons)

The co-chair added: “For intersex children ‘normalizing’ procedures are frequently justified by the ‘imperative’ of creating bodily congruence – for example, by removing ‘incongruent’ organs or making them ‘congruent’ with stereotypical male and female anatomies.

“We are very concerned about the practices that may evolve on the basis of this diagnosis.”

In 2017, human rights group Amnesty International strongly condemned these invasive surgical practices to ‘normalise’ intersex children as a violation of their human rights.

Related topics: intersex, intersex rights, LGBT, LGBT rights, Trans, World Health Organisation

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