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Neither male nor female: The plight of intersexes



MANY intersex people in Zimbabwe suffer stigma because of their condition, which presents a very unusual problem, as they cannot be strictly classified either as male or female biologically.

This ambiguity may be anatomical, hormonal, gonadal or chromosomal. In most cases, the child is born with two reproductive organs.

Malume Ngwenya, an activist with Intersex Advocacy of Zimbabwe, said he was abandoned at birth by his parents after they discovered he was intersex.

“I have been searching for my parents all my life. My parents abandoned me at a rural hospital in Nkayi, when I was born. We were born as triplets, but they left me and took my two brothers. I think they abandoned me because I was born intersex.

It’s been 40 years now, but I’m still trying hard to find them. I don’t have a family,” he opened up recently.

Ngwenya said he grew up in an orphanage, where he was assumed to be a girl, and was consequently given the female name, Thandiwe.

“But I identify (myself) as a man, especially, because I don’t have breasts. Growing up here was very hard. The other children were always laughing at me,” he recalled.

“Being intersex can be very lonely. I wish I could tell all other intersex people that they are not alone; that there are many of us out there. I also just wish more people would understand that we, as intersex people, are human beings – real human beings.”

Ngwenya is not alone in his predicament. NewsDay Weekender tracked down a teenage intersex in Hurungwe.

While he prefers to be identified as male, she is identified as female on her birth certificate.

“He” only wants to be identified by his first name Charity, for fear of stigmatisation.

When this reporter arrived at her homestead under Chief Dandawa, Charity was busy using an ox-drawn plough to till the land.
She was wearing a pair of faded jeans and an Arsenal jersey. A few years ago it was a taboo for her to wear male clothes.
“I was raised as a female.

If you had come about five or so years ago, you could have probably found me doing household chores,” she said with a chuckle.

From an early age, Charity knew that something was not “normal”.

Charity said growing up was a nightmare for her, as she could not even bath at the river with other children, as they would make fun of her because she was “unlike” them, with two reproductive organs.

In a bid to protect her, Charity’s parents, who were working at a farm near Banket, had to leave the child at their rural home in Hurungwe in the custody of her grandparents with special instructions that she should not undress in front of other children.

Now 16, the challenges have intensified. Charity was assigned a female gender at birth.

The nurses advised the parents to take a birth certificate with the female gender since it was more “dominant”.
“All her life we have been dressing her as female. She used a female toilet and was registered as a girl,” Charity’s father, Enoch said.

The problem for Charity started at puberty.

Her father said he was grateful that he failed to raise the money needed to “correct” Charity’s gender because it was going to pose more problems because the doctors wrongly thought she was a female.

“We did not have the money required to make the surgery but it was a blessing in disguise because it was going to pose more headaches for her. While everyone was developing breasts and curves, she was becoming more masculine with a deep hoarse voice. The beard later developed. She has no uterus and does not have a menstrual cycle,” he said.

He had to transfer her several times because of the condition as other children would peep at her in the toilet.

According to a medical doctor, Mlungisi Ndebele, the response by doctors on intersex children is, “often to carry out largely unregulated and controversial surgeries that aim to make an infant’s genitals and reproductive organs more normal, but can often have unintended consequences”.

“There are supposed to be some tests when the child is still young. It becomes dangerous and nearly impossible when it is an adult. The procedure, however, has some consequences,” he said.

Some of the consequences are painful scarring, reduced sexual sensitivity, torn genital tissue, removal of natural hormones and possible sterilisation – combined with the chance of assigning children a gender they don’t feel comfortable with has left many calling for the surgeries to be heavily restricted.

In Zimbabwe, there is no law which recognises a third gender, but in Kenya, a Kenyan MP, Isaac Mwaura proposed that the country’s Parliament passed a law to recognise a third gender to end discrimination against intersex people.

If adopted, Kenya will be the first African country to recognise the “third” sex.

Mwaura is also asking for funding for gender alignment surgery and a public awareness campaign to end stigma against intersex people.

“They see me as a curse,” one person born female, who later developed male physical characteristics he told the BBC.

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