Skip to main content


South Africa's Intersex Rights at a Crossroads: Navigating Political Uncertainty and Safeguarding Intersex Rights






Matuba Mahlatjie
Published Date

Explore the intersection of politics and progress in South Africa's intersex rights landscape and discover the urgent call to safeguard these rights amid political uncertainty. This article will help you gain insights from key figures and activists on navigating challenges and advocating for protection and equality.

In a one-day dialogue to discuss the state of intersex health and well-being in South Africa this week, the upcoming elections in South Africa took the spotlight. With the country set to go to the polls on May 9, 2024, there is anxiety among civil society organizations present that after the elections, the new incumbents may reverse much of the progress on intersex issues. South Africa’s commitment to the United Nations' Agenda 2030 and its Sustainable Development Goals, particularly SDG 3, which aims to achieve Good Health and Well-Being for all by 2030, inspired the event.

Intersex people are born with one or more sex characteristics (such as genitals, chromosomes, reproductive organs, or hormone levels) that don’t align with typical medical notions of either a male or female body. Making up nearly 2% of the population, intersex people routinely suffer from discrimination and violence simply due to their innate sex characteristics. 

In South Africa, the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act, as amended in 2005, groundbreakingly interprets the definition of 'sex' to include intersex people. Therefore, the law now promotes equality for intersex people, protecting them from unfair discrimination, harassment, and hate speech.


Political Uncertainty: Concerns Mount Over Post-Election Reversals

Keynote speakers included Deputy Minister of Justice and Constitutional Development John Jeffrey and Ntuthuzo Ndzomo from Iranti, a Johannesburg-based organization for transgender, lesbian, and intersex people. Ndzomo, during a panel discussion,  expressed concerns about the potential impact of the upcoming elections: “We don't know what will happen after 29 May 2024. We don’t know what's going to happen to all the amazing work that we've done, and that's the fear of each and every civil society organization in South Africa because we're worried that we're going to lose our champions.” This apprehension highlights the critical intersection of intersex issues with the political landscape, setting the stage for a pivotal moment in South Africa's ongoing pursuit of equality and well-being for all.


Call to Action: Safeguarding Intersex Rights Through Community Activism

Meanwhile, Deputy Minister John Jeffrey highlighted the significance of South Africa's groundbreaking inclusion of intersex anti-discrimination law, being the first country in the world to do so. Reflecting on the constitutional framework, Jeffrey noted the historical context that led to the omission of explicit references to gender identity and expression in the early ‘90s. He emphasized the need for increased awareness and understanding of intersex issues, pointing out the gaps between constitutional rights and the lived experiences of intersex individuals in South Africa. There is still much work to do.

Jeffrey underscored the importance of education and advocacy in challenging entrenched norms and stereotypes surrounding gender, urging society to embrace diversity and reject harmful practices. He highlighted the vulnerability of intersex individuals to discrimination and human rights violations based on their innate sex characteristics, particularly in education, employment, sports, and healthcare.

While the inclusion in anti-discrimination law was a significant first step, In South Africa, activists are still calling for the prohibition of harmful nonemergent surgeries and medical procedures on the sex characteristics of intersex children without their consent. They also emphasize the need to place less importance on the current sex/gender requirement on birth certificates to enable intersex persons to register without falling into one of the two binaries of male and female.

Iranti’s Ntuthuzo Ndzomo said the last engagement with South Africa’s health department was in 2021, and requests for a formal meeting to discuss genital mutilation of intersex people have been unsuccessful. “The Department of Health falls under the HIV and AIDS unit, so we've had from time to time had Senior officials from that unit come and actually speak to us. We've raised it and asked if we can please have a formal meeting where we can discuss and make sure that there is no more intersex genital mutilation in South Africa,” Ndzomo said. 

The Deputy Minister of Justice, in response, emphasized the need for legal recognition of intersex individuals' identities based on self-determination, calling for a comprehensive approach that combines robust laws with awareness-raising initiatives. Jeffrey acknowledged the ground-breaking progress made at the international level, citing the African Commission on Human and People's Rights resolution recognizing the harmful impact of non-consensual surgical procedures on intersex people. Jeffrey stressed the importance of addressing the invisibility and lack of awareness surrounding intersex issues, advocating for a society that respects the bodily integrity, autonomy, and self-determination of all individuals, regardless of sex characteristics or gender identity.


Urgent Plea: Addressing Systemic Barriers for Intersex Health and Wellness

Crystal Hendricks, the Sex Characteristics Officer at ILGA World and former Intersex Rights Officer at Iranti, delivered a powerful address. Hendricks highlighted the ongoing struggle for intersex individuals to access their rights to health and wellness, emphasizing the need for greater awareness and advocacy in the fight for bodily autonomy and self-determination.

Speaking at the event, Hendricks reflected on the historical marginalization faced by intersex people, noting the persistent violations of their rights, including sterilization, infanticide, and lack of access to sexual and reproductive health services. She drew attention to the discriminatory practices and lack of inclusivity that continue to impact intersex individuals globally, calling for urgent action to address these systemic challenges.

With a focus on the United Nations' SDGs, particularly SDG 3, Hendricks emphasized the importance of applying these goals inclusively to encompass the diverse needs of intersex individuals. She stressed the necessity of inclusive healthcare systems that respect the rights and dignity of intersex people, providing access to medical care without unnecessary and non-consensual interventions.

Hendricks called for the elimination of discrimination in healthcare settings, aligning with the SDG 3 mandate to promote inclusivity and non-discrimination. She emphasized the critical role of awareness and education in increasing understanding among healthcare professionals and the general public about intersex variations, advocating for a more supportive and respectful environment for intersex individuals to access healthcare services.

Crystal Hendricks's remarks at the dialogue shed light on the urgent need for concerted efforts to address the systemic barriers and discrimination faced by intersex individuals in South Africa and around the world. Her call for inclusive healthcare systems and greater awareness serves as a rallying cry for progress towards achieving health and well-being for all, regardless of their sex characteristics or gender identity.

Take Action

When you support our research, you support a growing global movement and celebrate LGBTIQ lives everywhere.

Donate Now