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Curse or Nature? The Challenges of the Intersex in Africa

intersex in Africa

The intersex in Africa are gaining some rights but they still face a culture of discrimination. In some places, a coded phrase; “break the sweet potato” is given to midwives instructing them to squeeze to death any intersex newborn they help deliver.

To be born intersex in Africa is the onset of a lonely and challenging life. This is because the intersex in Africa are seen to be cursed and a bad omen to their family and society. Even if you survive being killed, you still might not survive the stigma, depression and suicidal thoughts.

The Intersex Society of North America, defines an intersex person as one whose sexual anatomy fails to fit the description of either male or female. According to the society, there is one intersex child for every 1666 births throughout the world. These make about 0.05% to 1.7% of the total population on earth.

intersex in Africa

“Normalization” Surgeries For The Intersex in Africa

Recently, activism in Africa for the rights of the intersex people has been high. This has led to some countries such as Chile and Malta banning, what is called, “normalization surgeries.”

Normalization surgeries are medical procedures carried out on an intersex person in a bid to make them fit the male or female description. They are often carried out when the child is below 18 months of age on children who’s physical anatomies are not seen as naturally “normal” for their perceived gender. They were developed in the 1950s in the John Hopkins University and have now been found to be damaging. Bans on these surgeries were informed by arguments that intersex people are normal and should be allowed to live their lives as so.

“Break the Sweet Potato”

The script reads different in Africa. For starters, talking about sex openly is taboo. The intersex are dealt with secretly and in hushed tones by their families.

Due to poverty, especially in rural areas, victims’ families cannot afford surgery. They are left with the option of rituals and going to witch doctors. This, of course, has no results but the practice does not stop and the participants continue to keep hoping that the rituals will bring results.

Despite the secrecy around the condition, speculation remains high, especially among school going children. For instance, if a boy tends to display girl like characteristics or vice versa, they would be teased and ridiculed by their peers and while playing, the boys push him to the girls while the girls will push him to the boys. This has led to the intersex children being lonely.

In some places, a coded phrase; “break the sweet potato” is given to midwives instructing them to squeeze to death any intersex newborn they help deliver.

Not all is gloom for intersex people in Africa. Some have risen above the stigma and ridicule and are now champions for the intersex. Caster Semenya, an Olympic gold medalist from South Africa, is such a person. She became a topic of discussion when some argued that she had an advantage over her competitors in an all-female race. Intersex activists defended her and she is now accepted as an intersex athlete.

In another case, a Kenyan court ruled in favor of a woman who had sought to have the gender in her education certificates changed. As an intersex, her parents had brought her up as a man but she said she felt more comfortable as a woman. The court ruling was a major win for the intersex in the Africa.

The world is gradually opening its eyes to the rights of the intersex. Africa still has a long way to go before they can be fully appreciated. But with more time and increased awareness  and education, the script might read differently in the future.

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Alex Muiruri

Alex is a passionate writer born and raised in Kenya. He is professionally trained as a public health officer but loves writing more. When not writing, he enjoys reading, doing charity work and spending time with friends and family. He is also a crazy pianist!

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