Humanity is wired to believe that the only two acceptable sex categories are male or female. Forgetting that we have intersex persons.
By definition, an Intersex is “a child or an adult with a congenital condition in which the biological sex characteristics cannot be exclusively categorized in the common binary of female or male due to inherent and mixed anatomical, hormonal, gonadal or chromosomal patterns, which could be apparent prior to, at birth, in childhood, puberty or adulthood.”
Intersex persons whose sex characteristics do not fit the typical female or male categories are viewed as abnormal hence the need to be “normalized” to fit into either of the acceptable sexes.
In some communities, the existence of intersex persons is shrouded in secrecy and can only be evidenced by the names used to refer to them as ‘unnatural’, ‘valueless’, ‘imperfect’, ‘something inside the body’, ‘an ogre ‘and you know how you call them.
Intersex persons have generally been associated with lesbians, gays, bisexuals, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) persons.
There are instances where babies fail to obtain birth certificates because they are either male or female therefore excluded from all social, economic and civil processes, including enrolling in school.
According to ‘Fact Sheet on Intersex People’ by Religious Institute, the estimate of intersex births worldwide is placed at 1 in every 1500 or 2000 births.
The estimated number may be low, but it factually details that intersex persons exist. 1524 people were counted as intersex persons and were included in the 2019 National Census, making Kenya the first African country to count intersex persons in a national census.
In Kenya for example, human rights discourse on intersex persons in first emerged in the case where an intersex person was committed to a maximum-security prison for male convicts where he was made to share cells, bedding, and sanitary facilities with male inmates.
“He suffered mockery, ridicule, and sexual abuse from the inmates and prison officers who would ask him to spread his legs and expose his private parts in front of other inmates”, records Amka Africa of Kenya.
The court awarded the petitioner as damages for the inhumane and degrading treatment he had been subjected to in prison for being intersex. However, activists believe the court failed to appreciate the identity and human rights needs of intersex persons in that case.
Upon birth of an intersex child, the immediate intervention has always been left to doctors to “normalize” the child through corrective surgeries to make them fit into the acceptable sexes.
A study by AMKA Justice Initiative, an independent non-profit organization found out that religious and cultural practices are also used as avenues of “normalization”, but due to the secrecy surrounding these practices, unlike medical procedures, they are not sufficiently documented and available.
“Normalization” is referred to as interventions that are used to change the body of an intersex person to fit into either the typical male or female bodies, which are generally viewed as the norm.
The ideology supporting “normalization” stems from the stigma that society attaches to intersex persons who are viewed as abnormal.
The most common practice is the medical “normalization” which refers to intrusive, unwarranted and non-consensual surgeries and hormonal therapy that are performed on the body of an intersex person to forcibly modify the sex characteristics to conform to the typical male or female bodies.
Medicine has always seen intersex bodies as a purely medical issue in the last nineteenth century as evidenced by terminologies such as ‘Disorders of Sex Development’.
Cultural & Religious Normalization
Cultural “normalization” refers to practices that involve consulting and engaging with traditional healers, witch doctors and herbalists to ‘fix’ the perceived abnormality of an intersex child.
Culturally, intersex persons are viewed as ‘bewitched, bad omen or products of a curse’. Therefore, the cultural interventions by the healers, witchdoctors or herbalists are meant to dispel the curse or bad omen through purification rituals.
Religious “normalization” involves taking intersex persons to spiritual leaders for prayers meant to ‘deliver’ and transform them to binary beings to fit into the society that God created.
Religious leaders have been at the forefront of fighting against the recognition of intersex persons arguing that that would be an introduction of a third gender which God did not envision.
They base their argument on, among others, the creation story of Adam and Eve, arguing that male and female are the only accepted design of sex and gender.
Parents engage religious leaders to fix their children, who at times resort to crude means such as exorcism, starvation and incessant prayers.
Normalizations are usually performed without the consent of intersex persons and are often performed in infancy. They are violating their fundamental right to bodily integrity and the autonomy to make informed decisions on what should happen to their bodies.
Most laws ban Intersex Genital Mutilation on children; and contravention of this provision attracts a sentence by imprisonment or/and a cash fine.
Countries Embracing Intersex
South Africa was the first country in the world to protect intersex persons from discrimination by including the term intersex within the definition of sex in section 1 of the South African Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination of the year 2000.
In South Africa any person whose sexual characteristics have been altered by surgical or medical treatment or by evolvement through natural development resulting in gender re-assignment, or any person who is intersexed may apply to the Director-General of the National Department of Home Affairs for the alteration of the sex description on his or her birth register.
In 2015, Malta became the first country in the world to explicitly ban intrusive and non-consensual medical surgeries, on the basis that they violate the right to bodily integrity and physical autonomy of intersex persons.
Effects of Normalization
The prevailing practice after, or even before, the “normalization” practices has always been socializing the intersex child as either a boy or a girl.
However, as the child transitions into adolescence and adulthood, secondary sex characteristics such as beards, pubic hair, deepening of voice, enlargement of breasts or widening of hips begin to develop- a cause for psychological trauma and tension for intersex children.
The adverse effects of all the “normalization” practices not only affect intersex persons mentally and physically, but they also affect their human rights.
Studies have shown several adverse effects of social rejection of intersex persons which include accessing healthcare services, washrooms, legal documents and being prone to violence which is occasioned by being viewed as abnormal.
The answer to the question is; one is either male, female or Intersex. Intersex bodies are normal, not abnormal, do not ‘Fix’ them.