Ecofeminism – Being a woman in a world affected by climate change

  • May 20th, 2021
  • Blog

If you ask policymakers and academics around the world what is the most pressing issue in the 21st century, climate change would be a prominent answer. This global phenomenon affects our natural systems and consequently, our well-being. In his recent documentary ‘A Life on Our Planet’, David Attenborough predicted that by 2050, the oceans will be warmer and more acidic, and coral reefs around the world will bleach and die. This will cause fish populations to decline, which will affect millions of people who rely on the ocean for their livelihoods.

As a 23-years old recent graduate, these predictions concern me. But what really astonishes me is that gender can determine the amount of risk and impact climate change has on your livelihood. Climate Change affects people differently, affecting the most vulnerable in our society disproportionally. However, by labeling women as a vulnerable group, powerless to the impact of climate change, the main message of ecofeminism gets lost. Women are important actors of change and great stakeholders in the fight against climate change. This is why I believe it is important to implement an ecofeminist perspective into our climate conventions, policies, and programs.

Gender Matters

Women, particularly in developing countries, are more vulnerable to climate change since they rely more on natural resources and make up a great amount of the agriculture labour force. The cultural and social norms, present in their societies, affect women’s positions and conditions. Besides, they have unequal access to resources, information and decision-making processes, limited mobility, and the threat of sexual violence. 75 percent of people displaced by climate change are women and children due to uncertain socioeconomic status, behavioral restrictions, and lack of access to information.

Understanding the gendered risks is essential to achieving sustainable development, corroborating the idea that ecofeminism explores how: “male domination of women and domination of nature are interconnected, both in cultural ideology and in social structures (Ruether 1992, 2).”

The central piece to the puzzle

The initiative of the UN Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) called ‘Momentum For Change’ created a platform called Women For Results which recognizes climate solutions that are led by women. In Belize, women receive training on marine tourism and lagoon ecology. They restore coral reef habitats and have replenished already over one hectare of shallow reef. The programme also recognises that women need to be better represented at all levels in the decision-making process. Nowadays, 75 percent of power positions are held by men, these include both politicians and high-level diplomats who work around climate treaties and action plans, but also CEOs of multinational enterprises who discuss measurements to diminish their ecological footprint. Imagine which profiles are sitting at the table, will the aspect of gender be fully taken into account along the way?

Why a gender-responsive approach is essential

Women make up half the world’s population. When the voices of women across the world are underrepresented and unheard at the local, regional, or global level, this means that only half of the world’s population is listened to. Therefore, women’s empowerment and participation are essential in fighting climate change and can be reached through structural and cultural changes, economic empowerment, and capacity building, together with taking on a gender-responsive approach.

Yet, the pitfall remains that international conventions, national policy decisions, and local meetings just ‘add women and stir’. Inviting women to the debates does not generate a gender-responsive environment since women can be reluctant to speak or share their opinion due to cultural norms, no access to information, or no interest in their point of view. Therefore, it is crucial to recognize the particular needs, priorities, power structures, status, and relationships between women and men and adequately address this in the design, implementation, and evaluation of activities (GEF Policy on Gender Equality, 2017). Inclusive consultation with both men and women at the design and implementation phases of projects provides a considered approach representative of the strengths that both genders generate.

For example the UN Convention to combat desertification adopted a clause that stated the need for gender-responsive policies and measures, the ambition to ensure the full and effective participation of both men and women in planning, decision-making and implementation at all levels, and the empowerment of women, girls, and youth in the affected areas.

Ultimately, climate change impacts people differently and when climate change solutions address these differences, they become more effective and creates a ripple effect through society. To put it in David Attenborough’s words:”We can still turn this around, but we have to act now”. The best way, surely, to turn things around is by choosing an ecofeminist path.

Morane Verhoeven

Morane is a recent graduate in Global Peace, Security and Strategic Studies at the Brussels School of Governance. Morane is a Gender and Technical Assistant in the non-profit sector with a particular interest in ecofeminism.

Tackling the Digital Gender Gap in Africa

  • April 16th, 2021
  • Blog

GenPol was thrilled to re- partner with our colleagues at the Africa Technology Business Network, building on a well-established history of collaboration. The latest venture comes in the form of a Coalition for Digital Equality (CODE): a network connecting local and global stakeholders in Africa and Europe, with the aim to drive sustainable economic growth in Africa. A few weeks ago, our CEO Lilia Giugni spoke at the Coalition for Digital Equality Forum alongside researchers, social entrepreneurs, funders, activists and digital experts from Africa and Europe, where she urged academics to undertake research that illuminated the diverse interests of women in technology, their assorted technological skills and different levels of access to technology. In this blog, Maëva Yrio from the Africa Technology Businss Network explains what lead to the formation of CODE and her hopes for its future.

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Digital technologies are spreading fast in Africa and are seen to be contributing towards greater inclusive economic growth and stability. According to recent research, harnessing the potential of African digital economies is contingent on three key factors: jobs enabled by digital platforms, institutional drivers for digital success, and the digital potential of each country – measured by its digital progress over the last decade as well as its citizens’ access to digital money.

The growing digital gender divide in Africa however presents a major barrier to the region’s socio-economic development. On top of this, the COVID-19 crisis contributed to an increase in digital inequalities as we all shifted towards a more virtual world. African women and girls are among the most affected by this growing divide which could increasingly prevent them from accessing life-enhancing digital innovations in education, health, and financial inclusion.

Bridging this gap is a pressing issue, now more than ever and this is what our newly-formed Coalition for Digital Equality (CODE) is advocating for.

The Coalition for Digital Equality (CODE) is led by the University of LeicesterMakerere University Business School (MUBS)University of GhanaAfrica Technology Business Network (ATBN) as well as GenPol in partnership with digital stakeholders in Ghana and Uganda. Their goal is to support knowledge-sharing and the collaborative development of solutions to address the digital gender divide in Africa at a system-level.

To establish the network, CODE carried out a number of activities including stakeholder consultations and workshops, and were able to identify some of the key challenges that are impeding digital gender inclusion in Ghana and Uganda: 1) ecosystem fragmentation and lack of aggregated data about existing digital gender gaps 2) ineffective digital programmes which do not prioritise the needs of women 3) critical shortage of financing for women-led ventures and 4) cultural norms and attitudes which limit the pipeline of women digital leaders.

Thanks to these findings, CODE is now actively working to engage stakeholders in the co-development and implementation of solutions designed to foster African women’s digital inclusion and economic empowerment.

For further information about their work and to learn more about the digital gender gap and potential solutions on how to bridge it please visit CODE’s website and blog.

Maëva Yrio

on behalf of the African Technology Business Network

Interview with Sarah Linder from Political is Personal (Israel Palestine)

  • March 25th, 2021
  • Blog

“ People sometimes say that if women ruled the world, we would have no wars,” Sarah Linder tells me from her Tel Aviv home on the morning of Purim as we chat over Zoom. As the co-founder of Political is Personal (PiP), an initiative that conducts in-depth interviews with Israeli and Palestinian women on their experiences of conflict, she has more insights than most.

It’s easy to idealize a matriarchal utopia, but we don’t actually know what the reality would look like as “women are so often excluded from any conversations surrounding the conflict” she suggests.  “The struggle for equality between men and women is, sadly, still a relevant topic nowadays and especially so in the context of conflicts. This is no more evident than in Israel and the Palestinian territories. While there are a significant number of peacemaking initiatives, including a significant number organised by Palestinian and Israeli women, their voices are still silenced or dominated by those of their male counterparts. That’s what Political is Personal (PiP) seeks to challenge “

Linder’s insights, she suggests, are part of a broader question of the number of women in charge of political decisions and policymaking, as well as the number of women holding managerial positions in NGOs. Both are crucial aspects that affect women’s participation in matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At the same time, the voices of Palestinian and Israeli/Jewish women are only occasionally listened to through media filters. “It can be difficult to know whether someone is attempting to use these for political purposes that strip all honesty away from what was initially said. It’s a difficult balance. You have to be careful” she says to me. She pauses before continuing: “Careful that the words are interpreted correctly and that putting them out into the world doesn’t cause any harm. That’s something women definitely have to think about, on both sides.”

An independent scholar, Sarah spent time in New York working at a public school in Harlem and studying at the New School, taking classes in Sociology, History and Writing. After graduation, she moved to Israel, where she has lived for the last fourteen years. She received her Bachelor’s degree in Government, Diplomacy and Strategy at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC) with majors in Conflict Resolution and International Affairs in 2010 and her Master’s degree in Middle Eastern history from Tel Aviv University in 2014.  

Perhaps unsurprisingly, she quickly developed an interest in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict observing the complex dynamics of the conflict unfold on her own doorstep. Her physical proximity to the realities of the conflict left her with a need to understand and re-centre women’s experiences and voices. This, in turn, lead her to set up a Feminist Forum at the IDC in 2009 and eventually to establish the Political is Personal in 2015. The group set about carrying out a series of personal interviews of diverse women – Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, Palestinian citizens of Israel, and Jewish Israelis- building a rich bank of testimony and documentation of diverse experiences, allowing them to sit side by side.

Interviewing these women, Sarah told me, revealed elements of their everyday life experiences that she was able to relate to on a personal level. Analyzing the women’s responses to challenges and achievements in the context of severe political conflict revealed how longstanding gender hierarchies and the pressures of  traditional societies fed into the dynamics of armed conflicts. Looking at these questions in tandem was, she said, the key to understanding stories on both sides.

When examined through these lenses, the testimonies revealed a sense of an acute longing for a safe space and home, but simultaneously demonstrated emotional capacity to look beyond a partisan readings of the conflict, and to reach out to the other side. These insights, she argues,  need to play a much more important part in the ongoing debate on women’s narratives of security and insecurity in conflict zones, and (most importantly) the way in which these narratives translate into a wider understanding of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Bringing these particular dynamics to the forefront of current academic and scholarly debate, she argues, will be at the centre of what she wants to do moving forward. With the Covid-19 pandemic throwing our interconnectedness and need for shared stories into even sharper relief, GenPol is excited to read whatever timely interventions come next. PiP’s material is already available with open access (including “The voices of Israeli and Palestinian women” by Beatrica Blanda and “The Political is Personal” ). We encourage our readers to take time to read their work, and to take time to consult their homepage.

Ellen Davis-Walker

Statement on Sarah Everard and the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill

  • March 15th, 2021
  • Blog

Like many of you, we are heartbroken at the events that have unfolded this International Women’s Week. 33-year-old Sarah Everard, kidnapped and murdered as she was walking home in South London (allegedly by a London Metropolitan Police officer), could have been any of us. She is so many of us. We extend our deepest condolences to all those who knew her and loved her, and to everyone impacted by her story.

Over the last few years, we have sought to tackle the same violence that has led to Sarah’s death, working to address existing gaps in provisions pertaining to gender-based abuse and to women’s and non-binary people’s right to safety in public spaces. Through our research and advocacy initiatives, we have advocated for educational interventions in schools, universities and workplaces, and for more funding to be allocated to women’s organisations. We have recommended cross-sector partnerships to fund community initiatives, gender-sensitive training for legal and law enforcement personnel, and a different approach to the media coverage of violent patterns. We have never believed, instead, in a securitarian approach to gender-based violence prevention, or that expanding policing powers might enhance the safety of women and vulnerable communities. 

This week, the Policing, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, a new piece of legislation handing police and the Home Secretary significantly increased powers to crack down on protests, is being discussed at Westminster. The disturbing images from last Saturday, which show male police officers detaining peaceful female demonstrators at a vigil held to commemorate Sarah in London, are now encouraging public debate on the intersections between state violence, gender-based abuse, and right to protest. 

As gender-based violence experts, we are deeply concerned by the implications of this proposed reform, for both women and marginalised groups. We remain convinced that taking the streets to advance social causes (including women’s and LGBTQ+ rights) is part of the solution, and not of the problem. We equally fail to see how the broader measures foreseen in the bill on matters of criminal justice may help tackle violence against women and other forms of gender injustice. Finally, we find it alarming that the bill is being pushed through Parliament during the current public health emergency, and without a comprehensive civil society consultation.

We therefore join other human rights campaigners in asking the government to rethink its approach to policing reform. 

You can support our initiative by:

-Circulating this information across your networks

-Expressing your concerns on social media

Contacting your MP, and asking her/him/them to vote against this bill

In solidarity,

The GenPol Team

Happy International Women’s Day 2021

  • March 7th, 2021
  • Blog

Happy International Women’s Day

2020 has been a complex year for so many of us. Inequalities have been underlined and cracks in existing models exposed. At GenPol we are more committed than ever to our mission of finding gender-based solutions to societal problems and advocating for a fairer, safer world.

To mark this year, we’ve put together a round up of our 2020 highlights and a sneak-peak of some 2021 projects we can’t wait to share with you.

Wherever you are, stay safe.

In solidarity,

The GenPol Team

This year we have….

–Been invited by the Foundation for European Progressive studies and the Fondation Jean Jaurès  to be part of their #StopGBV series.In a collaborative article commissioned for the series, we consider the far-reaching impact of #DigitalGenderBasedViolence and its systemic roots.

You can read it in English
or in French

Other interesting articles from the series can be found here

-Presented our findings on DGBV to EU policy-makers and stakeholders from the private, public and third sector at ‘The Silencing effect’, an advocacy event we co-organised with women’s network Brussels Binder in December 2020. You can rewatch it here.


-Partnered with researchers and practitioners from the UK, Uganda and Ghana to collect data about the digital gender gap in Africa and identify and test solutions towards digital equality (more details here.

-Spoken at CODE (Coalition for Digital Equality) Forum, discussing the gender digital gap with researchers, social entrepreneurs, funders, activists and digital experts from Africa and Europe. You can find out more here.

-Recorded a podcast about digital gender injustice and possible solutions at the EU level in collaboration with FEPS. You can listen to it here.


-Continued to gather new data by collecting interview testimonies and survey entries on women’s and non binary people’s digital experiences during the pandemic in Italy and the UK


-Continued to animate discussions between gender, social and environmental experts and advocates. You can read more on our approach to intersectionality and cross-movement alliances here and here.

Coming up soon…

-New online events bringing together gender and social justice activists and experts in collaboration with our friends from FILL. Read more here.

-A new study on technology and gender, coming in Spring/Summer 2021

Dates for your diary

– March 11th: Our CEO Lilia Giugni will speak about digital gender-based violence and the intersections between gender and technology at the University of Trento. More details and a link to the webinar here.

-March 20th: our Policy Officer Chiara De Santis will be speaking at the 2021 Students for Global Health Conference on Health, Tech, and Equity. You can find out more here.

Don’t forget that you can find us on Facebook, Linkedin and Twitter

‘Naming it, Fighting it’: Multi-Level Solutions to #StopGBV

We are so grateful to the Foundation of European Progressive Studies (FEPS) and Fondation Jean Jaurès for inviting us to be part of their #StopGBV series.

In a collaborative article commissioned for the series, Chiara and Lilia consider the far-reaching impact of #DigitalGenderBasedViolence and its systemic roots. They explain how and why very different manifestations of online misogynistic behaviours are connected and what their implications are for #policy and social action within the #EU. Drawing on this they also propose a set of multi-level recommendations.

You can check the publication in EN: https://lnkd.in/dgdJm_K
or in FR: https://bit.ly/3upbksO

Other interesting articles from the series can be found here: https://lnkd.in/d3GvGPY

Confinement during COVID: the devastating effects of the pandemic on women’s incarceration in the U.S.

Melissa Ann Horn died from the coronavirus on 14 April 2020. She is one of the over 210,000 people making up the United States’ COVID-19 death count. Like many, she suffered from pre-existing health complications. Unlike many others who have tragically died from the virus, though, Melissa did not die a free citizen: she was in prison.

Incarcerated women are a high risk and much neglected population during the pandemic. Though activists have worked hard to make known the nefarious gender dynamics of the pandemic and its disproportionate impact on women, very few people have included incarcerated women in this analysis. Women in prison are rendered invisible by society at the best of times; during the pandemic, they have suffered the effects of the coronavirus with no recourse to help and few voices on the outside to amplify their struggles.

There are over 200,000 incarcerated women in the United States.[1] These women are disproportionately women of colour, disproportionately poor, and have predominantly been convicted of non-violent offenses.[2] Moreover, many of these women have struggled with substance abuse issues, mental illness, and histories of sexual and physical violence.[3] Recent surges in discourse on mass incarceration in the U.S. have tended to focus on men—who are incarcerated at greater rates than women—thus neglecting the specific issues that women in prison face. The discourse on the pandemic is no different.

No matter who we are and no matter what we have done, we all deserve to live in conditions that do not put us at risk of death. International human rights law outlines every person’s right to live in dignity,[4] whether or not their freedom is curtailed, and each country is responsible for upholding that obligation with respect to its citizens. It is clear that in the U.S., however, women in prison are living in catastrophic conditions that increase their risk of contracting COVID-19 and adding to the U.S.’s shameful death toll.

During the pandemic, women in prison continue to live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions with little protection against the virus’s spread and with little support for their deteriorating mental health. In the largest women’s prison in the world, situated in California, women are attempting to keep their surroundings virus-free by cleaning surfaces with unused sanitary pads.[5] The guards responsible for keeping these women safe do not wear masks.[6] In Indiana, women have been kept in quarantine in their cells for most of the day, even though the cells do not contain toilets, running water, or air ventilation systems.[7] One positive case in such conditions can spread rapidly among the prison population. Where prisons are taking COVID precautions, these compound many women’s mental health complications. For example, prisons across the U.S. have shut down visitation systems and legal visits, further isolating women who are cut off from society.[8]

The effects of the pandemic on women in prison are all the more important for the racial dynamic involved. The United States locks up women of colour, especially Black women, at rates which are disproportionate to their white counterparts. In 2019, Black women made up 26% of the female prison population when Black people of all genders made up 13.4% of the U.S. population.[9] Many scholars describe incarceration as a continuation of slavery.[10] Police brutality against African Americans, the prison industrial complex, Jim Crow, and the enslavement of Black people in the U.S. are all linked. When the state neglects to create safe prison conditions during the pandemic it continues to perpetuate the control of Black bodies by controlling women’s very access to healthy conditions and healthcare.

Incarceration is killing women. So what can be done? The pandemic sheds light on an issue that has long existed: overcrowding in prisons and poor conditions of confinement. To start with, all states in the U.S. must seek to decongest their prisons and jails. Far too many women are incarcerated for minor offenses, such as shoplifting, that attracted overly severe sentences. These women need not remain incarcerated. With fewer women in prison, the state can seek to create human living conditions in the inhuman structure of the prison by ensuring sanitary living conditions, safe social distances, and access to protective equipment for prisoners.

Finally, and most importantly, the state must invest in communities to prevent the conditions that lead to incarceration in the first place. Women are locked up because they are poor, because they were denied opportunity in their lives, and because of racist policing and criminal justice practices. When the state invests in women’s communities to address those factors, fewer women will come into contact with the carceral state. The recent call to “defund the police” extends to defunding the carceral system, too.

With the pandemic showing no signs of abating in the US, we can expect more women like Melissa Ann Horn to die. These women need our advocacy, too. We must fight for the living conditions and the lives of women on the inside as we seek to shape governments’ responses to Covid.

Nathalie Greenfield


[1] ACLU, Women In Prison (last visited 19 October 2020) available at https://www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/women-prison.

[2] Prison Policy Initiative, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie (2019) available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html.

[3] ACLU, Women In Prison (last visited 19 October 2020) available at https://www.aclu.org/issues/prisoners-rights/women-prison.

[4] U.N. International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) available at https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/ccpr.aspx.

[5] PBS News Hour, Inside the Largest COVID Unit at the World’s Largest Women’s Prison (2020) available at https://www.pbs.org/newshour/health/inside-the-covid-unit-at-the-worlds-largest-womens-prison.

[6] Ibid.

[7] PBS, Indiana Women’s Prison Locked Down Following New Covid Cases (2020) available at https://www.wfyi.org/news/articles/indiana-womens-prison-locked-down-following-new-covid-19-cases.

[8] AP, Covid Outbreak Reported at South Dakota Women’s Prison (2020) available at https://apnews.com/article/virus-outbreak-south-dakota-pierre-prisons-1a2e68cfd642f923c79ec5d9c680f464.

[9] Prison Policy Initiative, Women’s Mass Incarceration: The Whole Pie (2019) available at https://www.prisonpolicy.org/reports/pie2019women.html; US Census data, available at: https://www.census.gov/quickfacts/fact/table/US/PST045219.

[10] Lakshita Handa, Racism, Police Violence, and Mass Incarceration (2020) available at https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/humanrights/2020/08/12/racism-police-violence-and-mass-incarceration-the-legacies-of-slavery-and-segregation-in-the-united-states/.

New Series: Introducing #FridayFigures

  • October 16th, 2020
  • Blog

GenPol is delighted to introduce a new weekly series, #FridayFigures, across all of our social media channels (remember to follow us on Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin if you haven’t already).

In a world where it is quite hard to find data that will reflect women’s experiences, the intention behind this project is to share the figures currently available to make different facets of women’s lives visible and tangible. Women’s experiences are often mixed up, and “lost”, among the data or statistics about men, with heavy repercussions on governments’ policies, and the way society as a whole thinks and interacts. This kind of opacity affects infinite disciplines, decisions, and behaviours, from city planning to where state money is invested, right through to our ideas around gender roles, and more. It is, therefore, important to highlight the condition of the half of the world population that is very often overlooked and ignored, and shed light on these hidden figures and datasets.

We hope that this action will inspire and encourage people to reflect on the realities of women around the world, and that going forward we will see more and more data specifically about women to help tackle the same old problem of gender inequality. By putting the spotlight on what’s been mostly relegated to the dark. We hope that policymakers will take notice and act accordingly.

We will also be looking to expand our focus in the following weeks to cast light on the people behind the data, and this is where we’ll need your help! If you know a person, community, or organisation whose work focuses on celebrating or telling the untold and/or not commonly known talents, experiences, and stories of women, we would love to hear from you.

Make sure to check in on social media every Friday, and we’ll be back with more updates soon.

Ilaria Albani

We Need Your Help to Tackle Digital Gender-Based Violence!

  • September 17th, 2020
  • Blog

The ongoing shift towards a digital world has accelerated during the Covid-19 pandemic. As we are all spending even more time online or working remotely, there is an urgent need to address the issue of digital violence against women. Women are disproportionately more likely to be the targets of online harassment, and experience higher levels of digital violence in their day to day lives. At GenPol, we believe the time has come to start putting concrete strategies in place to stop this, and to make social networks and remote working spaces a safer place for everyone.

That’s why, for the next two weeks, we’re looking forward to opening up a wider conversation about the steps we can all take, together, to end digital violence against women and non-men, and we’d like you to get involved.

You can help us tackle Digital Gender-Based Violence once and for all by doing any (or all) of the following:

  • Read our research on the topic. Take the time to inform yourself and get confident with facts and figures using our infographics and policy paper. These can be found on the GenPol Homepage along with links to all of our other publications.
  • Take our survey in English. We want to hear about your online experiences and suggestions for how to make the internet a safer place. Don’t worry, it is 100% anonymous!
  • Join in with the debate online using the hashtags #WhenTechnologyMeetsMisogyny, #DigitalGenderBasedViolence,#DGBV- we want to hear from you!
  • Speak up about the issues of digital, gender-based violence, both online and ‘IRL’ (Although don’t forget to give us a shout out on Facebook and Twitter).

Stay tuned for more updates on social media, and we look forward to virtually meeting more of you over the next two weeks.

Thank you in advance for your support,

The GenPol Team

Addressing The Intersex Legal Gap

  • May 5th, 2020
  • Blog

As a soon- to-be-graduate in European Legal Studies, I am fascinated by the legal vacuum that surrounds intersectionality. It goes beyond a gender binary, and therefore it seems like most Western jurisdictions do not recognise its existence. Yet, intersex people do exist, and there is an evident lack of research about intersexuality. Existing research doesn’t distinguish between Trans rights or intersex rights, which is a serious conceptual error. The legal and material needs of these communities are different and should be addressed independently. That is why I think it is so important to talk about intersexuality and address this legal gap by raising awareness.

What is intersexuality?

Intersexuality is an umbrella term that covers congenital conditions in which there is an atypical chromosomal, gonadal, or anatomical sex development. The most known cases concern hermaphrodites, who develop both male and female genitalia. More recently, medical research has discovered forty different variants of intersexuality.
While this condition can be apparent at birth, intersex traits can appear during puberty, or even in adulthood.

The frequency rate of intersexuality in the population is not certain. Data about intersex people lack, due to the stigma attached to this condition and the absence of long-term detailed studies. Nonetheless, according to the United Nations, between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits.  

Why is it important to know about it?

Our legal traditions are historically based on the male-female dichotomy of the sexes, leaving little space for people who do not fit in this traditional binary system. Public toilets, marriages, and pension systems are just a few examples of cases in which being male or female could play a decisive role. This is also confirmed by the fact that this minority has been hidden for a long time. Recently, the legal gap between intersexuality and the male-female dichotomy can be bridged thanks to medical surgery.

Nowadays, the approach towards intersexuality largely reflects the theory of Professor John William Money. In the second half of the ‘900, the sexologist and psychologist developed a theory according to which the sex of a new-born is malleable. He theorised that it would be advisable to perform surgery on intersex children as soon as possible and raise them according to the sex assigned at birth.

No empirical medical research has backed his theory. Moreover, sex malleability overlooks the complexity of gender identity, which is not only about the anatomic sex appearance.

When an intersex child is born, the case is treated as an emergency. Even though sex is not clear, the sex assignment has priority in the treatment of the baby. In highly ambiguous cases, surgeries are carried out in order to confirm the baby into one of the two traditional sexes.

As the decision to perform surgery is taken by healthcare professionals and parents, the will of the intersex person is not considered. This approach may be understandable where the child’s life is at risk; however, the cases in which surgical operations are performed exceed those of life-threat. These medical procedures can often be highly invasive and they are frequently irreversible. They are usually accompanied hormone treatments, which should be lifelong and which may lead to hormonal imbalances.

As far as the paradoxical relationship between human rights and intersexuality is concerned, states seem to turn a blind eye. According to the comparative analysis Trans and intersex equality rights in Europe”, published by the European network of legal experts in gender equality and non-discrimination of the European Commission, with the exception of Malta, the European member states do not explicitly protect intersex individuals in their legal systems. Maltese legislation pioneered the recognition of intersex rights. With a legal act, it prohibited non-necessary surgeries on non-binary individuals and it recognised the rights to bodily integrity and physical autonomy. Nonetheless, Malta remains the exception in the European scenario.

Few steps have been done on an international level. Recently, some international institutions have addressed the issue of intersex rights; among them, the High Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, the Office of the High Commissioner of the United Nations and the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights. Yet, states still seem reluctant to adopt concrete measures.

What can be done?

One of the most important things to do about intersexuality is to talk about it. Raising awareness about intersex people could bring them to feel more comfortable about their condition. Moreover, it would be useful to talk about this topic in public debate to put pressure on policymakers to implement for more inclusive and non-discriminatory laws.

Aesthetic surgeries on intersex children should be explicitly abolished by law; the more states abolish them, the more unlikely it becomes that individuals appeal to the neighbouring state to have medical operations be performed.

In order to address the legislative gap, some countries have adopted the third sex option. However, according to some scholars, this measure could increase, rather than reduce, intersex stigma. All these steps maybe not enough to ensure that the fundamental rights of intersex individuals are respected and promoted. We are in need of more, interdisciplinary research. Intersexuality has not been considered by academia for a long time. Many issues need to be further investigated; for instance, the outcome of early surgery must be analysed with long-term studies, the consequences of the third-sex option must be scrutinized and an appropriate collocation in the legal systems must be provided for intersex individuals.

Finally, we must reconsider what we regard as “normality” when it comes to gender identity and sex development. Indeed, sex should be considered as a spectrum rather than a two-option choice. This Copernican revolution would disrupt the world as it is known today, touching legal and societal systems, “but – as Fausto-Sterling put forward –  in the long view – thought it could take generations to achieve – the prize might be a society in which sexuality is something to be celebrated for its subtleties and not something to be feared or ridiculed”.

Martina Molinari
University of Turin

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Contact Info

Gender & Policy Insights (10783588)
Registered address: 11 Peterhouse Mews
High Street Chesterton
CB4 1UW Cambridge
United Kingdom

GenPol is also a registered Italian charity (1269/3)
GenPol e' un'associazione culturale registrata
Registered address: via Schipa 91
80122 Naples
Italy