The harsh reality of intersex people in Zimbabwe

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Anne Muradzikwa with her grandchild who is intersexual at their homestead in Gwese village in Zimunya-Marange. (Pic by Ngoni Dapira)

…Demystifying intersex people from LGBT

Ngoni Dapira

IN Gwese village in Zimunya-Marange about 34 kilometres from Mutare, Kuda (Not real name) who is six-years old lives with the grandmother. The grandmother (48) Anne Muradzikwa says Kuda, whose stature appears to be that of boy, nonetheless enjoys playing house doing the cooking roles and baking mud cakes like what girls normally do, and rarely climbs trees or shows interest in masculine activities like what most of the boys in the village do.

Physically Kuda looks like any other healthy boy, but the behaviourism is more inclined towards female leanings. This is not because someone is counselling or forcing such mannerism, but it is because of the rare condition that Kuda was born with called intersexuality.

The child born with intersexuality (Face blurred to protect privacy)

Born with two sexual anatomies,of both male and female, as a child, Kuda is not yet aware of what lies ahead being born an intersexual person in a world where societal expectations about females and males are set, and those like them become social misfits because of being misunderstood and stereotyped. Often misconceived as homosexuals, intersex people are born with physical or biological sex characteristics, such as sexual anatomy, reproductive organs, hormonal patterns and or chromosomal patterns that do not fit the typical definitions for male or female bodies.

Easterntimeszim last week Thursday visited the rural homestead where Kuda lives. Already at a tender age, Kuda has experienced the harsh reality of rejection because of being born different. At the age of two, the biological mother abandoned Kuda because of fears of stigmatization and disappointment to stomach the rare intersexual condition. Muradzikwa said because the father, her first born son, was unemployed, she immediately took responsibility of Kuda after the mother abandoned them and up-to-date, almost four years later, she is more like the mother to Kuda since her son remarried in 2018, to start a new family.

She said Kuda was born as a premature baby at Sakubva Hospital in Mutare. Her daughter in-law initially hid the truth from them until after a few weeks when she escorted her to the hospital and the nurses removed the baby’s nappy in her presence, revealing the hidden truth.

“The mother shunned her child from birth because of the intersex condition. Maybe it was immaturity because she was around 20 years old then and my son was 28 when Kuda was born in 2015. Before she finally decided to abandon her family, quite often she had made threats to leave and would ignore her baby crying in abominate. Even after she abandoned her family, my son on two occasions followed after his wife in Mabiya village nearby where she comes from, but she kept on running away. My son has since married again and last year his new wife gave birth to their first child,” she said.

Muradzikwa who lives with her last born son who is still in High School while her husband works as a gardener in Harare, admitted that it has not been easy to raise her grandchild who has special attention needs, given that already they were living from hand to mouth as a family before Kuda came in the picture. She said her son contributes little towards the welfare of Kuda because he is unemployed, so she has to work extra hard in her garden to sell vegetable produce such as tomatoes and covo, to make ends meet and put food on the table.

The case of Kuda is just one of many cases of intersex people in Zimbabwe who grow up in different family and social backgrounds, some from rich families while some come from impoverished families. However, their story of humiliation is the same as they have to endure the same mental strain of being different and being stereotyped as ‘homosexuals’ growing up.

According to experts, between 0.05 per cent and 1.7 per cent of the population is born with intersex traits. Just like how people with albinism have been subjected to stigmatization because of the way they look differently, this is the same story with intersex people. The United Nations Human Rights Office in its 2015 United Nations Free and Equal campaign, released a first fact-sheet on the rights of intersex people. The campaign exposed how intersex children and adults are often stigmatized and subjected to multiple human rights violations, including violations of their rights to be free from stereotype and ill-treatment, to health and physical integrity as well as equality and non-discrimination.

Often stigmatized as part of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community, most intersex people have to undergo a secretive life from birth, to avoid being misfits in society, which means a lot of mental suffering in their upbringing says experts. However, some intersex people because of hormonal patterns and chromosomal patterns that develop after puberty, may have mannerisms or physical appearances which suggest them to be LGBT.

In Zimbabwe, the rights of LGBT remain a sensitive issue. However, very few people do not realize that for some people, physical appearances and hormonal patterns may be complex and uncontrollable, which is the case with intersexual people.

Being gay is not illegal, but according to the country’s Criminal Law Act, consensual physical conduct between men is punishable with a fine, or up to 10 years in prison, or both. However, police often arrest LGBT on speculation, then set them free without bringing charges, mostly because it is hard to catch people in the act of sodomy.

The association of LGBT people in Zimbabwe, Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ) on Monday joined others globally to commemorate the Intersex Awareness Day. This year’s commemoration was in solidarity with international human rights watchdogs that have been calling for an urgent end to human rights violations against intersex people.

“Sometimes these characteristics are visible at birth, sometimes they appear later at puberty, and sometimes they are not physically apparent at all. In 2020, we join other countries worldwide as we are urging Governments to prohibit harmful medical practices on intersex children, including unnecessary surgery and treatment without their informed consent,” said GALZ services and policy advocacy officer Sylvester Munyaradzi Nyamatendedza.

Nyamatendedza said some intersex persons may identify with the sex marker assigned at birth, while others may not. Adding that most may feel forced into legal sex and gender categories that they do not identify with, which may be problematic in their adolescence when they are able to make decisions for themselves.

“Human rights violations include forced and coercive medical interventions, infanticide, discrimination in access to education, sport, employment and services. The root causes of human rights violations against intersex people include harmful stereotypes, stigma, taboos and pathologization, which is treating intersex persons as necessarily ill or disordered,” said the GALZ services and policy advocacy officer.

The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in September 2015, through the United Nations Free and Equal campaign released a first fact-sheet on the rights of intersex people. In 2016, as a follow up, a joint call by the United Nations and regional human rights experts was published, calling on Governments to prohibit forced and coercive surgeries and other medically unnecessary treatments on intersex children without their consent.

“States have a legal obligation to protect all children from all  forms of  physical  or mental violence,  injury  or  abuse,  neglect  or negligent  treatment,  maltreatment  or exploitation. Children have the right to freedom from violence and freedom from torture and ill-treatment. So, when medical procedures take place without personal informed consent, they violate the right to freedom from experimentation,” reads part of the 2016 joint call.

Nyamatendedza said harmful practices on intersex children, whether in medical or other settings, have lifelong  consequences for physical and psychological health. He however accepted that parents of intersex children may be pressured into agreeing to “normalizing” and unnecessary medical interventions in order to obtain identification documents for their children and avoid being misfits in society. Until the intersexual child is scanned to ascertain the sexual orientation that child does not get a birth certificate.

Anne Muradzikwa talking with the GALZ Mutare Office counsellor Calvin Mapangisa during a follow-up visit last week Thursday.

With her experience of raising Kuda, Muradzikwa accepted that though she has been receiving counselling from GALZ and is being assisted to get expert medical advice to help Kuda, it is very painful to watch her grandchild have to wait till puberty, around the age of 10 years, for them to perform a surgical operation to leave one anatomy. Last year their case was first referred to Parirenyatwa Hospital in Harare and later to Mpilo Hospital in Bulawayo, which are public hospitals, but because of covid-19 early this year, they have not gone there because of the long distance travel bans on public transport.

“My prayer to God is that we will be able to help Kuda to have one sexual orientation. In October last year that is when we last went to Harare after back and forth appointments to get the best medical treatment or assistance in counselling for what is best for our child,” she said.

Adding, “These days, Kuda is now asking questions why sometimes urine comes out through the male anatomy and in other cases through the female anatomy. Kuda sometimes has severe abdominal pains which are disturbing. As you noticed we live far from Mutare and transport has not been easy during covid-19, so at times I just want the operation to be done for Kuda to hopefuly live a normal life,” she said.

Muradzikwa said tests are expensive in private hospitals where expertise is reliably available, so they have been going to public hospitals but seem not to be getting enough help given the current challenges facing the country’s public health institutions.

“The doctors said Kuda has a short nerve which is causing both anatomies to function all together. We are also still to do a scan and other tests normally done to ascertain the child’s actual sexual orientation,“ she said.

As one intersex expert notes, intersex procedures involved may include labiaplasties, vaginoplasties, clitoral “recession” and other forms of clitoral cutting or removal, gonadectomies, hypospadias “repairs,” phalloplasties and other forms of  penile augmentation surgeries and prenatal as well as postnatal hormone treatment. Associated practices may include dilation, repeated genital examinations, post-surgical sensitivity testing, and medical photography.

The right to security of intersex people, including freedom from injury to the body and the mind, or bodily and mental integrity is protected by the first substantive right in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights while Article 17 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities speaks on the right to free and informed consent, which means forced and coercive medical interventions violate their right to non-discrimination.

Muradzikwa said already Kuda has socialization problems. As a child instead of playing with others Kuda prefers to play alone at their homestead. To avoid stigma in community Muradzikwa said they have been keeping Kuda’s condition a secret, but fears that when school starts, a new and complex life will begin for her grandchild.

“Now there is the aspect of starting school. Kuda was supposed to start ECD (Early Childhood Development) this year but we were unable to get all the required material because of financial challenges. The covid-19 challenge also started early this year, so we just decided we will take Kuda next year, but my fear is on how he will fit in and if he will cope when other children when they discover about the intersex condition,” she said.

Testimonies have however documented profound negative impacts of these often irreversible procedures, including permanent infertility, incontinence, loss of sexual function and sensation which cause psychological suffering, including depression and shame linked to attempts to hide and erase intersex traits. In many countries, surgical interventions on children may be funded by health insurance or the State, but psychological support for individuals and families, and access to reparative treatments, is limited or unfunded. This is the case with Zimbabwe, but unfortunately the socio-economic turmoil in the country has over the years led to on and off labour strikes in the public health sector, which has made services unreliable in most public health institutions.

Nyamatendedza however said, while awareness of the existence and rights of intersex people is slowly growing thanks to the work of intersex human rights defenders, only a handful of countries have taken concrete measures to uphold their rights and protect them from abuses.

“In this connection, it is critical to strengthen the integration of these human rights principles in standards and protocols issued by regulatory and professional bodies. Ending these abuses will also require States to raise awareness of the rights of intersex people, to protect them from discrimination on ground of sex characteristics,” said Nyamatendedza.

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