INTERSEX people are born with sex characteristics that do not fit into typical binary sections of either male or female.
These traits, such as chromosomes, genitalia, reproductive anatomy, and hormones, are a naturally occurring variation in humans. Some are visible, others are not; some are conspicuous at birth, while others become apparent during puberty or later in life.
Sometimes, they are never noticed at all.
People are born intersex about as often as they’re born with red hair or as twins.
Being intersex is different from being transgender. Intersex people can have any gender identity, and also any sexual orientation.
Intersex people often experience prejudice and discrimination because their bodies do not conform to other people’s expectations about sex and gender. In some parts of the world, people who have visible intersex traits such as ambiguous genitalia face abandonment and violence.
More regularly, intersex people are subjected to unnecessary medical interventions and some babies born with intersex characteristics are murdered. Reportedly, intersex infanticide remains a major problem in southern and eastern Africa, South Asia, Brazil, and China.
By treating intersex traits as birth defects or disorders, common medical practices have reinforced the belief that intersex people need to be “fixed.” Many intersex people, including children too young to understand or consent to unnecessary medical interventions, have been traumatised by their experiences in medical settings. These experiences may include surgical removal of reproductive organs, alteration of external and internal genitalia, and subjection to pre-pubescent hormonal therapy to force their bodies to develop in certain, expected ways. Some people have had their intersex status deliberately concealed from them by doctors and parents.
Because of these practices, intersex people are often reluctant to seek care.
Intersex people also face discrimination at school, work, or whenever society segregates people based on gender. Intersex people often have difficulty getting legal identity documents that reflect their gender or may not be issued identification at all, which can prevent them from going to school, opening a bank account and getting a job.
In Zimbabwe, intersex people live hidden lives.
The Chronicle at some point reported that,
“intersex children are reportedly permanently hidden at home, with some being killed at birth, as families feel that their conditions would bring bad luck to a whole clan as they are considered to be a sign of bad omen”.
Legally, intersex people are not recognised thus, they have no legal recourse to address issues of discrimination.
Many intersex people have resorted to a life of crime, drugs and substance abuse, and sex work which then puts their lives at risk as they face high levels of gender-based violence and of contracting many STIs, HIV, and AIDS.
According to a report by intersex advocacy organisations – Intersex Community of Zimbabwe (ICoZ), Zimbabwe Intersex Movement (ZIM), Rise Above Women’s Organisation (RAWO) and NNID Foundation – there have been cases of infanticide, and children being confined within the home, abandoned and disowned.
“Many do not have identity documents or access to schooling, and therefore struggle to integrate into society and find employment. When open about being intersex they suffer from discrimination and hate speech. As a solution to the issues faced by young intersex girls and women, at least two state hospitals offer ‘corrective’ genital surgery and medical treatments to intersex children,” the groups submitted.
The report also stated that the groups were “concerned that the offered treatments include non-emergency genital surgeries and medical procedures to adjust sex characteristics at an age” that cannot provide prior, free, and fully informed consent themselves.
A recent Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission (ZHRC) report on the National Inquiry on Access to Documentation said there was a need for national identity documents to have provisions of inter-sex.
Meanwhile, intersex advocacy groups are appealing to the government to create engagement platforms for intersex persons in order to fully understand their issues.
Intersex Community of Zimbabwe founder and Executive Director Ronika “Ronie” Zuze told a local news outlet in an interview that authorities were still not sanctioning some of their group events and workshops.
“As intersex community, we are facing challenges in our societies. These range from being restricted from holding workshops by authorities in the area we operate in Chitungwiza. We are also lacking resources to carry our advocacy work, and we are not being given platforms to engage law and policymakers,” Ronie was quoted.
In another piece, the activist said the long road to secure rights of the intersex community starts by getting recognition from the government.
“It has to start with the government itself, by acknowledging the existence of intersex people in Zimbabwe and to stop trying to erase intersex people by either traditional, cultural or medical means, to give intersex people a platform to speak out in order to educate and inform our Zimbabwean society on realities of intersex people in Zimbabwe, to help raise an awareness on intersex issues and to include and consider of intersex people in everything including law and policies crafting and reforming.”
Zuze pointed out that many researchers end up misreading intersex issues with those of transgender people, as they do not find the population to work with when they embark on research.
ICoZ is a community-based organisation aimed at providing support to intersex persons and parents of intersex children, as well as create awareness and gather data to help establish an identifiable presence of intersex people in Zimbabwe.
With its headquarters in Chitungwiza, it was established in October 2018 after comparatively frustrated attempts to join and collaborate with LGBT organisations in the country.
“First we targeted the LGBT community and educated them. For me, the hardest thing was trying to find acceptance by the LGBT community. I thought I belonged to that family. We soon realised that they were not ready to sit with us and learn about us and let us share our stories. We decided to change our strategy, and targeted our own communities where we come from first. That is, our moms, families, and friends. Soon we understood what it means to be intersex in Zimbabwe…,” Ronie told COC Netherlands, an organisation that supports LGBTI Communities globally.
With varied activities that include artivism, music, poetry and painting, ICoZ raises awareness on intersex reality with social media and live interviews, as well as sensitisation workshops for healthcare professionals. They are also working in having intersex people included in the HIV and AIDS debates, with participation in panels on the topic.
Two years and counting, the organisation has become one of the most prominent intersex groups in Africa. In 2019, they were part of a delegate representing the African Intersex Movement (AIM) at the African Commission which travelled to Banjul, Gambia to present an information note on The Rights of Intersex Persons in Africa.
Currently, they are running countrywide awareness programmes to educate various sectors of society on intersex matters and strengthen its membership base.
With the outbreak of COVID-19, they created a specific program with donations across their territories, to empower intersex adults and families of intersex children with skills to make different products such as hand sanitisers, orange juice for vitamin C, soap making, and gardening activities (to promote healthy eating and to help raise funds by selling fresh vegetables).
Sources: NewZimbabwe.com, RadioVOP, COC Netherlands International