In August 2015, a report on violations to children and people born intersex or with differences of sex development was launched in an East African country airing the most revolting abuses and violations that intersex people experience. The report is titled, “Intersex Genital Mutilation (IGM) and Female Genital Mutilation (FGM): Both a Form of Societal Control”.

The highlight of the report was Intersex genital mutilation (IGM) which was then commonly referred to as surgery without consent. The report shows that over 22 cases of intersex genital mutilation were recorded in that year alone not to mention that these are the only documented cases. Many go by behind closed curtains. The report displays a picture of an intersex child whose surgery had gone wrong and the child was left in a state where they were oozing urine all day long. The mother needed to buy pamper (nappies), which she could not afford, for a grown child who did not need them in the first place. This is only one of the countless side effects that IGM bears.

Intersex Genital Mutilation is commonly referred to as the non-consensual and medically unnecessary procedures performed on intersex individuals, often during infancy or childhood to alter their genitalia to fit societal norms. These procedures can include surgeries to modify genital appearances or remove reproductive organs. Typical forms of IGM include clitoral reduction, vaginoplasty and gonadectomy.

The launch had representatives from all the East African countries at that time besides Tanzania including Uganda, Kenya, Burundi and Rwanda. The launch was attended by over 30 key stakeholders including Intersex community members with their families, health service providers especially midwives and paediatricians, intersex human rights activists and activists from affiliated civil society organisations.

The launch of the Intersex Report was attended by representatives of 30 East African countries

Female Genital Mutilation explained

The practice is not usually given the term female genital mutilation (FGM).  In some parts of Africa, it is referred to as female circumcision.  The tradition involves the partial or total removal of external female genitalia. The practice is still found in several African countries including Kenya, Uganda, Somalia, Tanzania, Ethiopia and many more. The practice is seen as part of a girl’s initiation into womanhood and hence a prerequisite for marriage. It is usually carried out to control women’s sexuality as it is also thought to ensure virginity before marriage and fidelity afterwards and to increase male sexual pleasure. Young girls are usually persuaded to accept the tradition with promises that it will bring riches to the family, and help them have children easily.

Are both IGM and FGM rooted in societal control?

IGM has in many circumstances been compared to FGM in discussions about nonconsensual genital surgeries and the violation of bodily autonomy. Both practices are rooted in societal control reflecting deep-seated norms and beliefs about gender roles, sexuality and appearance.

Gender norms

IGM: Procedures performed on intersex individuals often aim to enforce traditional binary gender norms by altering genitalia to fit societal expectations.

FGM: Often carried out to control female sexuality, FGM reflects cultural beliefs that link a woman’s virtue and modesty to the modification of her genitalia.

Power dynamics

IGM: Medical professionals and parents might make decisions about intersex children’s bodies, exerting control over their physical development without their consent.

FGM: Typically performed within specific cultural contexts, FGM is often driven by a desire to maintain power structures and control over women’s bodies within patriarchal societies.

Cultural and social expectations

IGM: Societal expectations regarding binary gender norms drive the urge to conform intersex individuals to these norms through medical interventions.

FGM: Embedded in cultural traditions, FGM is often seen as a way to ensure a girl’s marriageability and adherence to established cultural practices.

In both cases, societal control manifests through these practices, highlighting the importance of challenging harmful norms, promoting bodily autonomy and respecting the rights of individuals.

Impact of the practices on individuals

The practices have deep and lasting repercussions on the lives of the individuals who live these experiences. Both can lead to immediate and long-term physical complications including physical pain, scarring and chronic pain. The non-consensual surgeries cause profound psychological trauma leading to feelings of anxiety and depression.

A lived reality for Zuze Ronnie from Zimbabwe

Ronnie has undergone four unnecessary genital corrective surgeries since birth.  Three of these happened in the early 1980s when Ronnie was still an infant. As a young adult, Ronnie was able to put a stop to any more of these surgeries as they were more aware of the harm they were causing them. Unfortunately, the harm that was done is irreversible and has resulted in lifelong medical complications which Ronnie refers to as extremely challenging to address. The surgeries also caused chronic pain, permanent scarring and emotional struggles. The medical record keeping in at hospitals at that time was also characterized by insufficient organisation and documentation posing challenges for comprehensive healthcare and forsaking Ronnie to having no medical history.

Ronnie wishes that the doctors had waited to do the surgeries and given them a chance to be part of the decision to whether or not to have these surgeries done on them. They strongly advocate for patience and the need to prioritise informed consent when it comes to cosmetic surgeries on intersex individuals.

It’s time to end outdated and harmful practices of female genital mutilation (FGM) and Intersex genital mutilation (IGM)

The African community must unite against the harmful practices of female genital mutilation and Intersex genital mutilation. These outdated traditions not only infringe upon fundamental human rights but also perpetuate cycles of physical and psychological suffering. By fostering awareness, education, and advocating for legal measures, we can collectively work towards eradicating these practices, empowering individuals to make informed choices about their bodies, and ensuring a future where everyone can live free from the shadows of such practices. Focus on changing these roots of control to foster a world where every person regardless of gender can thrive in an environment that upholds dignity, equality and the right to bodily integrity.

Now is the time to end Intersex Genital Mutilation and Female Genital Mutilation.

This article was written by our content contributor, Delphine Barigye.