There’s already a significant media controversy over the issue of sex-selective abortion in India because of parents’ preference for boy children, but now, some are reporting that parents are trying to “convert” girls into boys in the months after birth. Earlier this week, the Medical Council of India (MCI) and the health department in the province of Madhya Pradesh launched an investigation into allegations that parents are using corrupt surgeons to surgically change girls’ genitals because they wanted boys instead.
The Hindustan Times broke the story with a series of pieces claiming that doctors in the city of Indore say they have turned between 200 and 300 girls into boys. The operations were fairly inexpensive, but they’re also recommended only for children whose internal genital organs do not match their external organs. The surgeries are called genitoplasty, which refashions external genital organs; children are also given additional hormonal treatments. But experts warn that these procedures should only be followed in a small minority of cases.
“Genitoplasty is possible on a normal baby of both sexes but later on, these organs will not grow with the hormonal influence and this will lead to infertility and impotency. It is shocking news and we will be looking into it and taking corrective measures,” said the president of the India Academy of Pediatrics in Indore.
One thing should be clear: this practice is controversial, but it isn’t limited to India. In the United States, children born with “ambiguous” genital organs are still determined to need these surgeries, despite potential risks. This, for some intersex activists, is a problem. In fact, they often refer to the surgery as medical abuse, saying that genitoplasties are rarely medically necessary.
The fact that the parents of intersex children should be able to choose their children’s gender – surgically, if necessary – does not seem to be debated in India, however. The disturbing element of the surgeries that are being investigated in Indore is the fact that these procedures are becoming normalized as part of a cultural norm in which some families, because of social or financial incentives, value boys more than girls.
So while there is a legitimate and ongoing debate about genital surgery as a whole, this is particularly distressing because it may be part of a larger mindset in which, according to Ranjana Kumari of the Centre for Social Research, ”people don’t want to share their property or invest in girls’ education or pay dowries.”
While it’s important to remember that these medical procedures are controversial for other reasons besides the devaluing of women, in this context it seems fairly clear that, assuming these allegations are true, women are suffering as a result of the parents’ choice to reassign their children’s gender. Although the state could potentially do some harm by creating medical boards to “decide if the surgery is medically required,” it seems undeniable that if an investigation reveals that forced gender reassignment is happening, the government needs to explore solutions, whether it’s education, extending resources or something else entirely. As with sex-selective abortion, it’s a tricky subject, but something that needs to be investigated further.
Photo from Capitan Giona’s Flickr photostream.