For Malawians with two sexual organs, life is never easy. The minority that does not seem to count comprises an array of muted groups.
Some are quickly dismissed as ‘stillborns’, the newborns killed shortly after birth because their sexual makeup remains a taboo in a culture where almost everyone is either male or female. Others are unlucky to survive, for they are assigned a weak gender when birth attendants conspire to cut off even the dominant organ.
Yet others become almost unmarriageable, being known by one gender until their bodies testify beyond a doubt that they belong across the sexual divide.
At Mponela Trading Centre in Dowa, one of the uncounted Malawians personifies how mass unawareness is driving intersexual Malawians into rights violations, scaring them away from public life
The 40-year-old looks like any other woman: married and with five children.
Who said life begins at 40?
Two years ago, the shock of ‘her’ life had just begun.
At 38, the father-of-five started walking away as male organs were pronounced on top of his wife’s private parts.
The couple has since divorced, with the man accusing the spouse of witchcraft since she stopped menstruating and started urinating using “a strange male organ”.
“I have grown up as female and did everything like a female until I saw a protrusion on top of my organs. I treated it as simply abnormal swelling or a disability until it became fully functional,” she recalls.
However, the expulsion is one of the tricky situations that haunt Malawian intersexes.
Jolted by a ‘menstruating boy’ denied a chance to change her passport to reflect her overpowering female gender, MBC journalist Suzgo Chitete makes an extensive trip, stopping in all regions, to get inside stories of the underground population.
The travels comprised detailed interviews with intersexes, their friends, relatives, village heads, health workers, lawyers and activists.
Chitete’s trip strengthens the certainty that intersexes exist in the country, but it is not easy to identify them in a society that is harsh or plainly indifferent.
“There is more evil happening behind the curtain of culture. We have these people we cannot accommodate and we hardly talk about them because we are cultured to look at people as simply male or female.”
Mike Kaiyatsa, a human rights campaigner at Centre for Development of the Peoples (Cedep), works with almost 20 intersexes in his line of duty.
He decried the absence of comprehensive research into the phenomenon, saying: “Even government seems not to acknowledge the existence of intersex Malawians.
“Without studies, it is difficult to know who they are, their population, where they live, what they go through and how to effectively reach out to them with interventions to meet their unique needs.”
Kaiyatsa’s group comprises children, the youth and the elderly from both rural and urban settings, he says.
Tragically, some intersexes born at the hands of the banned traditional birth attendants end up being killed or dubbed “cursed babies”.
Others, birthed with assistance of skilled healthcare workers, at times have their dominant organs crudely severed or dismembered.
The activist urges against the babyhood surgeries, saying: “Because of the rush, some people are forced to live like boys though their bodies and hormones function like girls.”
He argues babies rushed into ill-equipped surgical rooms experience the surfacing of their true features and feelings years later.
World Health organisation (WHO) recommends this delayed approach, affirming intersexes’ right to undergo the procedure when they are old enough to choose.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) political and civil rights manager Peter Chisi says the government has the duty to make sure health facilities have adequate staff and equipment for these operations and other essential services when they need them.
The activists rate intersexes’ access to vital health services as scanty.
As the wait for parity continues, an athlete in Blantyre City West laments being treated as a homosexual because her parents decided she is male.
At 24, she is active in women soccer—a deft dribbler and team player. However, she was raised as a boy for 23 years, sent to a boys’ boarding school, endured a surgery to remove her breasts when female features started emerging.
Now, she conforms to the imposed male gender no more. Contrary to parents’ preference, she menstruates and medical tests show she has a uterus.
She regrets parental decision to have breasts and male organs removed, she says.
Organisation of Intersexes International (OII) likens the babyhood surgeries to female genital mutilation common in east Africa.
It states: “We regard both practices as violations of human rights and human bodies,” the body says, calling on all governments and the civil society to condemn the practices and work towards ending them everywhere.