By Annie Banerji
NEW DELHI, Aug 28 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - An Indian state has banned sex assignment surgery on babies whose sex is not clear at birth, a health official said on Wednesday, in a first to protect intersex children.
The landmark move was made in response to an April order by Tamil Nadu's top court to prohibit such surgeries - which research suggests can cause long-term mental and physical damage - except in life-threatening situations.
"The (government order) was issued as per the high court's directive to protect intersex children from these so-called normalising surgeries," said a ministry official, who declined to be named as he was not authorised to speak to the media.
About 1.7% of children are born intersex - with reproductive organs, genitals, hormones or chromosomes that do not fit the usual expectations of male and female, the United Nations says.
Doctors often perform surgery to make intersex babies genitalia look and function like that expected of males or females, in the belief it will make their lives easier and ease parental distress.
But calls are growing to outlaw gender alignment surgery unless it is medically needed, for example, to help urination or menstruation. Intersex activists say numerous surgeries on young children without their consent can cause psychological damage.
Portugal banned unnecessary surgeries on children with sex variations last year - the second country globally after Malta.
"Nowhere in India has this been done before," said Philip C. Philip, an LGBT+ activist at the Human Rights Law Network, urging better education in medical schools so doctors understand intersex bodies.
"This is the first time that intersex persons and their concerns are being dealt with."
In its order, Tamil Nadu's government announced that it will set up a committee, including doctors and a social worker or intersex activist, to ensure that the "exceptional clause of life-threatening situation shall not be misused".
At least 10,000 intersex babies are born each year in India, but infanticide, abandonment and mutilation are common, according to LGBT+ rights groups.
LGBT+ campaigners called for parents and medics to be educated about intersex babies - who are often confused with transgender people in India - to boost support and acceptance.
"Atypical sex characteristics are not something that need to be 'corrected' or 'normalised' - rather they need to be understood as a natural aspect of human diversity," Kyle Knight of Human Rights Watch told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
(Reporting by Annie Banerji @anniebanerji, Editing by Katy Migiro; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters that covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org to see more stories)
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