Being intersex in Africa is a taboo. Even if you survive the lynching by family, then you might not survive suicide. For a long time, intersex people in Africa have been perceived as a curse by their families. Just like those suffering from poor mental health in Africa, the stigma has pushed some into depression and suicide. It is worse if the community around them gets to know of their condition.
According to the Intersex Society of North America, an intersex person is one whose reproductive or sexual anatomy does not blatantly fit the typical definition of male or female. There are intersex people all over the world. The organization states that for every 1666 births, one is an intersex child. That makes it about 0.05% to 1.7% of the total global population.
Intersex Normalization Surgeries
In recent times, there has been increased human rights activism seeking for the recognition of intersex people. For instance, Chile banned surgeries aimed at ‘normalizing’ intersex people. According to the Chilean government, such people are normal and should be left to live normal lives. The government of Malta also banned these surgeries in April 2015.
In the USA, it was found that the intersex therapy, developed by the John Hopkins University, was damaging. It developed in the 1950s and involved ‘correcting’ intersex children before they reached 18 months of age. They would then be raised as either a girl or boy. Following this revelation, activism against such surgeries increased with the intersex people eventually starting to get recognized as normal.
The script reads differently in Africa though. For a long time, intersex people in Africa have been seen as abnormal. In old times, an intersex child would have been discarded in the forest. Twin babies were also often discarded. And in recent times, dealing with intersex conditions has been mostly through rituals as many now believe it is a curse that only a witch doctor can break.
In rural areas, especially for those who cannot afford surgery, victims are stigmatized and ridiculed. If it is known to family members only, then it is always dealt with in secrecy. ‘Dealing’ here means to perform rituals. It is, however, barely kept a secret as intersex people are often recognized. The chance of bullying and the spreading of rumors is also high, especially among school children. For instance, if one has a boy’s name but tends to talk and behave like a girl, or vice versa, then speculation and teasing are highly probable. This often pushes such children into loneliness and self-hate.
Break the Sweet Potato
In some areas, rural midwives have a come up with the phrase ‘break the sweet potato’. It is used in reference to intersex infants that are squeezed to death just after they are born and discovered to be intersex. The fact that talking about sex or genitals is a taboo does not make matters easier. This has caused intersex people in Africa to suffer alone and in silence. It is in this loneliness that some have contemplated suicide.
It is, however, not all gloom for intersex people in Africa. There are those who have managed to overcome the stigma, ridicule, and self-hate and have grown to become integrated people of society. Caster Semenya, for instance, is a South African Olympic gold medalist. She has been subject to global ridicule due to the manly features that place her above her competitors in races. She has, however, risen above it and is now a celebrated intersex athlete. There are other intersex people who are now championing for the rights of the intersex.
In 2014, a Kenyan court ruled in favor of a transgender woman who had sued the education ministry. The ministry had rejected her request to change her gender and name in her educational certificates to reflect her new self. This was after she had undergone the transformation. The court ruling was a show of light for the intersex people in Kenya.
The world seems to be slowly awakening to the rights of intersex people. Some have said that they weren’t known because they weren’t speaking, others think they have been talking but the world has just been ignoring them. In Africa, there is still a long journey ahead before they are seen as accepted in society. But with increased knowledge, their situation in Africa is gradually changing.