When journalists hurried to Immigration Offices in Lilongwe last year, a Nigerian pastor was captured producing fake Malawian passports.
In the rush, MBC reporter Suzgo Chitete bumped into a story of exclusion in a country where every citizen is expected to be either male or female.
“An immigration officer was yelling at a client who wanted to amend sex from male to female and all eyes were on them,” he says.
Naturally, the setting was teeming with crowds clamouring for passports and permits when the cultural shock exposed how some Malawians are treated like aliens because they are born with both male and female organs.
“The client said he was now female,” Chitete recalls. “The officer said the desired change was impossible, mocking him: ‘inuyo mukufuna kukhala mkazi?’ [Do you want to become gay?] Actually, he told the client to stop watching gay films.”
But intersexuality is a birth condition, nothing to do with films and same-sex affairs.
Some intersex babies are smothered at birth, but others grow up as boys or girls against their will.
At worst, many mistake the condition for homosexuality.
Chitete recalls: “Even onlookers were sneering: ‘Za u gay basi! [A gay!’ He looked frustrated. I ran after him, asking if I could help. He was in no talking mood.”
Later, the boy, who dejectedly disclosed being born with two organs and being raised as a boy, said he felt “more and more female”–complete with menstruations.
“He admittedly wanted to leave for South Africa to start a new life because he felt the shift to female side would trigger suspicion and scorn among those who knew him as a boy,” Chitete recalls.
The treatment at all levels mirrors a “state-sponsored stigma and discrimination”, Centre for Development of People (Cedep) executive director Gift Trapence terms “.
When asked, Department of Immigration spokesperson Wellington Chiponde was gushing.
“We have never received any query. We are living in a changing world, but our passport only provides for male or female. If we meet a person wishing to change gender, we will look at it accordingly.”
Intersex people wonder why Malawians and government agencies keep treating them like any other citizen.
They live in a world of their own, suffering violence and discrimination.
Some hide. Others flee their country.
Public documents strictly deny them the liberty to identify themselves according to their unique sexual make-up.
Lawyers Mandala Mambulasa and Chrispine Sibande urge government to stop treating these Malawians like second-class citizens.
They reckon the existing inequalities in service delivery contravene a principle of equal treatment enshrined in the Constitution.
“Intersex people are no lesser Malawians, but government and its agencies are actually denying them citizenship,” says Sibande.
The sexual and reproductive health rights activist wants government to add ‘other’ to all official documents that restrict citizens to two boxes-male or female.
He draws attention to other countries where passports, national identity cards and other official documents bear the third box for those who do not exactly identify themselves as male or female.
Presently, the national registration and identification system has no slot for those who would tick both boxes or none.
National Registration Bureau (NRB) spokesperson Norman Fulatira says: “It is the same with other institutions that conduct different kinds of registration. However, we discussed the issue of inclusion and we would consider including the third category if people demand for it.”
In this way, says Mambulasa, government could be endorsing a discriminatory tendency which costs lives.
He says: “When a baby is born with two organs, some elders connive with birth attendants to remove one, even the dominant one. Consequently, the babies grow up being known as boys when their bodies are telling them they are female.”
Mambulasa alludes to a Mangochi-based woman whose intersex baby was terminated in the same fashion, asking: “How many more babies have been killed as we tolerate these misconceptions?” he asks.
Malawi Human Rights Commission (MHRC) director of civil and political rights Peter Chisi backs the calls for inclusiveness.
He reckons government has the duty to guarantee the right to life and citizenship, first and foremost by equipping health facilities to offer surgical services to those who are old enough to choose their desired sex.
Chitete’s travels, interviews and documentary comprise an encounter with a pupil at a remote primary school in Salima where he uses staff toilets because ridicule from peers makes the students atrines no-go zones.
Recently, seven adults abducted the learner to ascertain his sex .
In a cry for justice, a worried mother said: “The boy was nearly killed at birth by elders alarmed by his organs believed to be a result of witchcraft.”
In Mangochi, another mother rues making futile visits to several health facilities to change her child’s status. The child was registered as a girl at one school. She was later transferred when she started showing strong masculine features. Now, the feminine features are back in shape. The pupil, who stopped using school latrines, frequently he walksaback home, about three kilometres away, when nature calls.
Centre for Human Rights and Rehabilitation (CHRR) executive director Timothy Mtambo wants government to demonstrate that the underground group counts.
He says: “In a democracy, the majority has a duty to protect and respect the rights the minority. Intersex people do not choose to be born the way they are and they are human being like everybody.”