Physical changes during puberty are completely normal, but in Salinas, a remote village in the southwestern Dominican Republic, they are downright extreme. For some of the boys living here puberty is the time they actually grow a penis. Many of the children are born without male genitalia and are raised as girls, but they eventually become men in their teenage years. The phenomenon is so familiar to the people of Salinas that the children – called ‘guevedoces’ (penis at 12) – are not considered abnormal at all.
The condition is apparently the result of a rare genetic disorder that occurs due to a missing enzyme. This prevents the production of dihydro-testosterone – a type of male hormone – when the baby is in the womb. All fetuses have internal glands called gonads and a small bump between their legs called tubercle. At around eight weeks, the enzyme 5-α-reductase triggers a huge surge of dihydro-testosterone in male fetuses, converting the tubercle into a penis. In female fetuses, the tubercle becomes a clitoris. But in many babies born to Salinas women, the enzyme is missing entirely.
So these babies are born with the tubercle intact and no testes, and are often mistaken for female babies. It isn’t until they reach puberty that another surge of testosterone is produced, which is when the male reproductive organs are formed. As their voices deepen, their penises begin to emerge as well.