Baroness Barker: Government must strengthen equality laws to protect the human rights of intersex citizens of all ages
From employment to accessing public services, intersex people experience discrimination. The Government must strengthen equality law in the area of protection of sex characteristics, says Baroness Barker.
Variations of Sex Characteristics (VSC) Intersex is an umbrella term which describes people born with sex characteristics which do not fit in the typical definitions of male or female bodies. There are no reliable statistics on how many VSC Intersex people exist, but the UN estimates that it could be up to 1.7% of the population.
For many decades infants born with VSC Intersex have undergone surgery to align their genitalia with the sex to which they are ascribed. Often parents have consented to these invasive procedures on medical advice when under pressure to register the birth.
These days there is sufficient understanding of the impact of hormones on physical development to know that upon reaching puberty most people will change physically and emotionally. Therefore, the effects of surgical procedures performed on infants cannot be more than cosmetic or temporary.
Equally, those who are VSC Intersex have spoken out about what happens to them as Infant Genital Mutilation (IGM). Many suffer life-long health problems and are unable to trust health professionals, finding any involvement with the NHS so traumatic that they avoid contact until any illness they have becomes intolerable. It is clear something must be done to stop this suffering.
In a UN Committee Against Torture report, it was recommended that in the UK parents or guardians of intersex children receive counselling services as well as psychological and social support, including information about deferring any decision on unnecessary treatment until they can be carried out with the consent of the person concerned. It was also recommended that individuals who have been subjected to such procedures without their consent, which has resulted in severe pain and suffering, are compensated, including the means for rehabilitation.
Medical professionals often justify their advocacy of surgery by arguing that VSC Intersex children will be laughed at in school. These days, when safeguarding schoolchildren of all ages is taken seriously and excellent initiatives such as the NSPCC’s Talking PANTS rules are available to protect children, such arguments seem weak. More so, it only takes sitting and listening to the harrowing stories of people who have been operated on as children to realise we must challenge the practise of paediatric surgery on VSC Intersex children.
There is also the need to tackle the surprisingly little data or information about VSC Intersex people, even within the NHS. Whilst happy to perform surgery, there is no overall care strategy or guidelines for practitioners. They receive no training and have no specialists to whom they can turn for advice. VSC Intersex patients give examples of inappropriate questioning or being made to feel like freaks – that is simply inexcusable. That is why in the House of Lords this week I am asking a question about the protection of the human rights of VSC Intersex people of all ages.
They experience discrimination in many ways, in employment, education, sports and access to public services and we have to demand better. The government could easily address many of these issues by strengthening equality law in the area of protection of sex characteristics. Other countries, most notably Malta, have changed their equalities legislation to protect the human rights of VSC Intersex people. They have also made surgical intervention (or Infant Genital Mutilation IGM) illegal. The Liberal Democrats are calling on the Government to do likewise without delay. Although it may only affect a small number of people, we cannot underestimate how immensely important it is to them.
Baroness Barker is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.