Features Health

Intersex – Neither female nor male, breaking the silence

CHRISTINE CHISHA, Lusaka
THE excitement of becoming a parent is like a child waiting for Santa the night before Christmas. Parents while awaiting the arrival of a child hold baby showers, parties, getting the nursery ready.
Some parents paint the nursery themselves, packing their bookshelves with mommy bargain books, and of course picking out the cutest new-born outfits on the planet.
Each night parents wonder when the day will arrive but sometimes the arrival of a new family member is not so simple.
It is a boy!’ or ‘It is a girl!’ is what every parent expects to hear, Intersex is never something that a parent expects.
Intersex is a general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that does not seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.
Some may ask why a subject of intersex. Often, the birth of an intersex child brings shame and anxiety to the parents and, later, the child.
The intersex person’s family and friends find it hard to cope in a society that presumes that everyone is easily classified as male or female, and that all it takes is one peep at the genitalia.
This brings secrecy and stigma in a life of an intersex child or adult.
For Bwalya Ngenda [not real name] he shared his personal journey as a way of educating others.
Mr Ngenda said in Zambia, Intersex conditions are not discussed openly because it is seen as a taboo to speak about genital abnormality.
“Children often face forced segregation from their friends and told to lie to teachers about their ambiguous genitalia because such a condition is often seen as witch craft and parents are not ready to face being ostracised by their communities,” he said.
At first he had wanted an operation, but he hated going to the public hospital because over and over again she became this guinea pig for the doctors.
“I became so abused by the doctors to a point whereby even when I got sick, and I was seriously sick, I could not go to the doctor.
“The only doctors I could go to were private medical doctors but those were expensive and I could not afford them. I was so angry at myself that I could not go to a private doctor because I needed to get an operation,” he said.
Mr Ngenda said after meeting other intersex people he has realised how privileged he was that he did not undergo the surgery because people who went through it are going through a very hard time because the surgeries left negative effects on them.
Mr Ngenda said in Zambia, the only designated hospitals that deal with intersex conditions are University Teaching Hospital (UTH) and Ndola General Hospital. In Zambia, medical doctors do not perform forced corrective surgery on a newly born baby.
However, there is no system or policy to correct this abnormality as most cases go unreported and families would prefer to suffer in silence than face the humiliation of being showcased around the hospital or in the media.
Mr Ngenda said the lack of psychosocial support from parents and relatives is also a contributor to the distress experienced by children.
He said most often it leads to deprivation of various fundamental enjoyments of any human being such as education, employment, correct legal documents, marriage and parental rights or guardianship.
A situation a Human Rights organisation Dette Resources Foundation is trying to correct. The foundation stresses that intersex children are natural and normal, and are found in all societies.
Foundation Community Co-ordinator Jane Kaluba said “intersex children come with a bundle of rights clenched in their tiny fists fighting to stay alive. They are born free with their unique bodily features, hormones and a blood system that flows like yours and mine.”
She said in the same token, they carry hormones like the rest of humanity. The only thing that is unique about them is that they find themselves in a world that does not have room for them.
Ms Kaluba said it was a pity that intersex people have no known legal recognition in the Zambian laws.
“Intersex people in our society live a miserable life. They grow up being called derogatory names like hermaphrodites. They are in constant contact with insults. They live in shame and fear. This is because we have refused to accept diversity.
“It is also sad that many parents opt to subject intersexual children to the so-called corrective surgery. The child is boxed into one of the boxes – male or female. The operations are too painful, irreversible, and intrusive and they leave scars,” she  said.
Ministry of Health Deputy Director Technical Support Services, Health Education  ,Tasila Pitters said  in Zambia intersex babies and adults though rarely recorded are referred to as  ‘hermaphrodites’, a term rejected by intersex activists because it is considered medically incorrect and leads to increased stigma and shame.
According to the Intersex Society of North America (ISNA), the mythological term ‘hermaphrodite’ implies that a person is both fully male and fully female. However, this is physiologically impossible.
But this situation is beginning to change, largely due to the work of intersex activists. In South Africa, there is a lot more known about intersexuality than there was twenty years ago.
Intersex South Africa an organisation that offers support to parents and intersexed people firmly believes that children who are born intersexed should not undergo surgery because there is nothing medically wrong with them.
Intersexed people can live full and fulfilling lives, including creating positive sexual and social relationships with others.
Intersex conditions are not black magic but nature`s proof of the many possibilities under the sun. No child chooses to be born different from others and no family should suffer in silence because of what nature has determined.

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