At first, it was just another meeting where people share ideas on rights of minority groups. But when a real life experience was narrated by a troubled mother with an intersex child, each of the participants, who included chiefs, lawyers, the clergy and a member of Parliament (MP) from various parts of the country, got emotional and started to talk solutions.
To the woman, the presence of these opinion leaders was an opportunity to have her case recorded for action. Like a trained orator, she perfectly summarised, what she said was a long story into a short, but striking narrative.
And if she planned to make participants emotional and empathetic, she absolutely achieved this goal—the room was quiet with faces focused on her while some heads swung both vertically and horizontally-a sign that they were following.
“Census enumerators asked how many children I have. I said six. They asked how many were male and how many were female. I said two were female and three were male. Then they said that I had only counted five and where was the sixth one,” she explained.
“I said I was not sure if he was male or female. After a brief discussion on their own, they allocated the child the female gender mark. This is how much I struggle to explain who my child is,” she narrated with her face focused in the direction of the MP as if begging for support.
The mother also took the audience through the everyday experience of her child, we will identify as Chikondi for ethical reasons, who is currently in Standard Eight. The child is registered as a male learner contrary to her health passport which identifies the child as female.
“The child is confused and we are confused too because at one point, he looked like a girl and then later, we saw male features coming out dominantly, and then, we started to consider him as a boy.
“He has fully grown breasts and is doing normal menstrual cycles. He has both male and female sexual organs and we are currently seeking medical help at the Mercy James ward in Blantyre,” she further explained.
Her moving story ignited debate among participants.
A Blantyre-based lawyer, who was part of the meeting, said this is a wake-up call for the country to consider recognising the intersex to accord them full protection and support.
“We need to do something about it even if it means having a motion in Parliament. Listening to this story, I get a feeling that this is not an isolated case, but we need more evidence to have it presented to Parliament,” said the only legislator in attendance.
A chief from Mzimba told the meeting that the issue of intersex children has always been there, but some communities consider it a curse.
The chief’s assertion is part of Chikondi’s experience. According to the mother traditional birth attendants said it was an abomination to have an intersex.
“They wanted him killed, saying he would become a witch or wizard,” she told the meeting.
Chikondi’s life experience
Chikondi’s experience has been that of struggle. The first time we met was 2015 and had just been moved from one school to another. He requested the transfer to escape the teasing and mocking from fellow pupils.
“Actually, fellow learners would follow him to the toilet just to see what appeared to be abnormal sexual organs. The child was demoralised and temporarily dropped out of school before he enrolled here,” narrates a teacher at the new school.
“Here, we made an arrangement that he should be using staff toilets.”
But as things stand now, the child is in an awkward situation-a boy with female features. This has also affected his dressing. He dresses to hide breasts.
In Malawi, people are only identified as male or female. This is the reason the census enumerators had to decide on his behalf, just like a medical staff decides on behalf of parents when a child is born.
“We do not know intersex babies until delivered. Once they are born, we examine them to see which is more likely of the two sexes. So, we do not instantly tell them the sex until some tests are done. But in our case, we have a challenge that some of the confirmatory tests cannot easily be done in the country,” says gynaecologist Grace Chiudzu in a video documentary produced by the Centre for Development of People (Cedep), which captures life experiences of being an intersex in Malawi.
She says they advise the mother based on what they can see.
In the documentary, College of Medicine professor of public health and epidemiology Adamson Muula says: “It is possible to do surgery, say if the child looked more like a girl you can maintain the girl features and remove others. The thing is the surgery is done for cosmetic purposes. It does not make a man to become a woman. It is just that we have decided one or another, so that the individual can easily integrate in society.”
His argument is based on a World Health report of 2012, which discourages surgery for sex normalising. They say it can lead to health complications.
In 2012, the High Court in Kenya ordered government to recognise intersex as a category beyond male and female gender marks. The case, popularly known as ‘Baby A’, followed an application to the court by a parent of an intersex child who was denied an opportunity to enroll in school because the birth certificate had a question mark-meaning it did not indicate if the child was male or female.
In an interview, lawyer for the Kenyan parent, John Chigiti, said the ruling has set the tone in Kenya. Special legislation has been enacted to recognise the intersex.
“We are moving across the country collecting data of all intersex people and the Kenya National Commission on Human Rights is in the forefront,” he said.
Without a legal intervention, intersex population will continue to live in sexual identity quandary.