Intersex people seek recognition from government

Sydney Etemesi speaks during an intersex awareness forum in Voi, Taita Taveta.

Photo credit: Lucy Mkanyika I Nation Media Group

Ezekiel Mjomba was born intersex 20 years ago. His parents did not understand his condition and sought corrective surgery to treat what he referred to as an 'abnormal' condition.

"My parents told me that I had a tear in my male external genitalia and doctors recommended that I undergo surgery. That is what I know so far," he said.

Mjomba, now a Form Two student at a school in Voi, grew up as a normal child. But he noticed changes in his body when he reached puberty.

What started as pimples on both sides of his chest grew bigger, and this shocked him.

"I told my father about it and upon checking closely it was obvious I was developing breasts. I sought medical treatment and after reviews by doctors I was told that I'm intersex," he narrated.

Intersex children are born with either two sex organs (male and female) or one visible organ while the other is either hidden, malformed or deformed and don't match what’s traditionally classified as male or female.

Mjomba also started noticing bloodstains on some days of the month. He says the condition gives him abdominal pain that sometimes makes his studying difficult.

"I used to play football but now I cannot. My teachers told me not to participate in vigorous activities until I get better," he said.

He says he's not shy talking about his condition because he wants to eliminate the stigma associated with being intersex.

Lucky for him, he has not faced any direct discrimination in his village and school. The community has been helpful by ensuring that he gets money for treatment when he needs medical attention.

"The stigma has kept many people from getting the necessary help. I am lucky that I have not directly faced it but I know it is difficult to talk about this condition in public," he said.

Mjomba said the discovery, and the realisation that there are other people out there like him and who are not afraid to talk about their experiences, made a huge difference.

He said he now has the courage to come out and talk openly about his condition to help those who are suffering in silence.

"I will be an ambassador in this county to help other people not to suffer in silence the way I did. I encourage the seven people who were recorded in the last census to come out so that we can push for our rights together," he said.

He commended his parents for being there for him to get treatment even when they did not understand what the condition was.

"My parents are jobless and poor but they try to see that I get treatment when I am in pain. For that, I am grateful," he said.

To end the stigma surrounding intersex people, he said, parents should not hide such children and urged society not to ridicule them.

In his village, many people do not understand the intersex condition. His neighbours asked him to register with the National Council for Persons with Disabilities, but Mjomba declined.

"This is not a disability and that is why I declined the advice that I enrol as a disabled person. What we need is recognition and a stigma-free society," he said.

But his father, Nyange Mwachia, has stood by him since day one, ensuring that his son is protected from stigma and discrimination as he gets the required medical interventions.

He narrates that the journey has not been easy since the day his son was born at Bughuta dispensary in 2001.

He said his son's male genitalia had a tear and he was informed by the midwife that he needed urgent medical correction.

"The midwife told me that my wife had delivered a defective baby and after explaining to me what this meant, she referred me to Moi Hospital in Voi for a review," he said.

From Moi Hospital, the couple were referred to Kenyatta National Hospital but their finances could not allow them to immediately travel to Nairobi for the surgery.

When his son turned one year old, they managed to get the surgery done by doctors from Kijabe Hospital, at no cost.

"Many years later, he told me that he was leaking when passing urine. Upon examining him I saw a tiny hole, maybe the surgery was not well done," Mwachia said.

Just like Mjomba, thousands of intersex Kenyans suffer later in life after undergoing such surgeries.

Many parents choose surgery to correct the condition but in some cases, they end up creating more complications.

To make their life easier, the government is seeking ways to officially recognise the intersex group.

On Tuesday, the world observed Intersex Awareness Day, designed to highlight human rights issues those in the group face.

Kenya has about 1,524 intersex people, the 2019 census showed. But the number could be higher as some fear revealing their status due to the stigma surrounding the condition.

In 2017, the Attorney-General established a task force on intersex people in a bid to recognise their rights.

Sydney Etemesi, an intersex person from the Jinsiaangu organization, said the government needs to recognise the rights of such persons.

He said many communities treat intersex children as if they are a bad omen. Some intersex children are killed at birth and others cause families to disintegrate. In most cases, Etemesi said, fathers blame mothers for giving birth to an abnormal child.

He was addressing a meeting on intersex people in Voi that involved stakeholders, including government officers and human rights campaigners, to support law reforms to recognise the group.

Etemesi said he was raised as a girl by her parents but in adolescence he realised he had male characteristics.

"I suffered an identity crisis, something that made me think that no one understood me. I underwent self-stigma and eventually ran from home because I thought no one understood me," he said.

He said his journey to accepting himself has been difficult and the expenses that come with treating his condition unaffordable.

"Changing my name on my identity card from Beatrice to Sydney was expensive. Getting treatment is also very expensive. That is why we are pushing to get recognition from the government," he said.

Etemesi said his organisation will walk with Mjomba and his family to help him complete his education.

"I became a street child at the age of 13. That is why we must support such children because they go through a lot," he said.

Sharon Ngeru, 22, another intersex person from Kiambu County, advised parents with intersex children to allow them to choose their gender when they grow up.

"Some of these corrective surgeries and treatments are not done well and end up bringing more complications for the child in future," he said.

"I underwent surgery that made me female but you can see I am a man. I don't blame my parents for it because they wanted the best for me and that is why I'm sensitising others so that others don't suffer what I went through."

Speaking during the presentation of the intersex task force report in Voi, Kenya National Commission on Human Rights Coast region coordinator Brenda Dosio said that with more awareness on the condition, more people are likely to come out.

"We want to facilitate intersex persons to live without fear in our community," he said.

Task force member Juliet Maganya said the report that was released by the team in 2018 seeks to have intersex people recognised within the policy framework of the Constitution.


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