The packed hall went dead. The only sound was the whooshing of an angry fan whirling the heat away from its mount on the wall. All eyes were fixed on the diminutive figure in a white tee shirt timidly that was walking slowly to the head of the room.
“You always hear about us” Sharon Ngeru started.
Chairs creaked. People sat up. Necks were craned to get a better view. Baffled glances were exchanged. Sharon: The name is feminine. So are the eyes and mannerism. However, the voice is masculine. It is surprisingly deep for one so small.
Despite the intense scrutiny, Sharon remains nonplussed. This is expected. The stares and gawking are a common reaction whenever Sharon speaks.
After a pause, Sharon goes on.
“To most people, we are only whispered about. I came for you to see that we exist. You now know how we look like.”
Sharon, 23, is an intersex person but identifies himself as a male. At birth, he had both female and male genitalia. His small-body and effeminate features drove his parents to seek medical intervention for corrective surgery.
They wanted to turn him into a ‘normal’ girl. They ignorantly believed his condition was a simple anomaly that could be rectified by surgical excision of some external organs.
After the surgery, he was placed on a cocktail of hormone-regulation drugs that at puberty saw his hips broaden and breast swell. He had used the hormonal drugs to boost her feminine features for two decades before she stopped and embraced her male identity.
Sharon believes they meant well. However, they ruined her body.
“The multiple surgeries I was subjected to only succeeded in destroying who I am. I am damaged. I pray no other intersex child will be forced to undergo what I went through,” he says.
Sharon is one of 1,524 intersex persons who were enumerated during the 2019 population census. This was the first time the government was acknowledging the existence of a special group that is neither distinctively male nor female.
Intersex condition is associated with ambiguous genitalia, undefined hormonal surge or presence of non-typical chromosomal pattern.
Nairobi and Kiambu has the highest numbers of intersex persons at 245 and 135 respectively. Samburu, Tharaka-Nithi and Taita-Taveta have the lowest intersex population at seven each.
Kenya National Commission on Human Rights (KNCHR), opines that the numbers for intersex persons is way higher than what is on KNBS records.
According to the Report of the Taskforce on Policy, Legal, Institutional and Administrative Reforms regarding the Intersex Persons in Kenya submitted to the Attorney General in 2018, it is estimated that there might be over 779,000 Intersex persons in Kenya.
The low official numbers registered during the 2019 census are attributed to fear, shame and stigma associated with Intersex condition. Public ridicule and the oddity of the condition has made it difficult to map the intersex population in counties.
“There is need for more sensitization to the public and institutions on intersex persons to demystifying their medical condition. Such awareness will also reduce the level of stigma associated with intersex condition and allow them to come out for engagement on matters affecting them,” says Brenda Dosio, Coast Region Coordinator for KNCHR.
Speaking during a stakeholders’ meeting organized by Intersex Persons Implementation Coordination Committee (IPICC) in Voi, it emerged that most families with intersex members and children preferred to conceal their identities. They would rather identify with either the binary tag of male or female to avoid those shocked glances or raised eyebrows if they identified themselves otherwise.
Ms Juliet Maganya, a KNCHR official and a member of the IPICC, noted that there was a lot of misinformation on intersex persons both in the public and institutionally. She added that several laws and policies needed to be amended to acknowledge, adopt and accommodate the unique needs of the intersex community.
Some of the laws include Registration of Person Act, Children Act 2001, Kenya Citizenship and Immigration Act 2011, Prison Rules 1963 and Probation of Offenders Act amongst others.
“All legislation where gender marker is a requirement only recognize M for male and F for female There is need to have a marker for a third gender I for Intersex persons,” she said.
The move by KNHCR to have public engagements on Intersex persons was as a result of court findings that cited, need to identify the group.
In 2013, parents of an intersex baby whose code was Baby A sued Attorney General after the hospital records indicated the baby’s sex as question mark sign. This means the child could not get a birth certificate and later ID card. The parents argued this violated the child rights to legal recognition. The court agreed and directed the government to develop a legal framework governing issues related to intersex children.
Currently in Kenya, the only law that explicitly recognizes Intersex Persons in Persons Deprived of Liberty Act 2014.
Sidney Etemesi, an official with Jinsiangu-an organization that deals in identifying and advocating for rights of intersex persons, said the public need to differentiate between intersex persons and groups of divergent sexual orientation including gays, lesbians, transsexuals and bisexuals.
“Intersex is a medical condition. We got it from birth and it is not a disability,” said Sidney.
As an intersex child, his parents gave him the name Beatrice. However, trauma from discrimination and lack of self-identify drove him away from home. He became a street child before a chance encounter with an intersex adult gave him a chance for a safe space and a better life.
“I was lucky because I chanced upon my benefactor while begging in the streets. I have a wife and a child. I identify as a man,” says Sidney.
Still, challenges abound. He gets irregular periods that sometimes come after two years of absence. When they arrive, they are too agonizing and the flow is nonstop for up to three months.
Sidney said that parents of intersex babies should strive to give such babies unisex names.
“Don’t give then names that will be a nightmare for them later in life. Give them names that can be comfortably adopted by female or male,” he said.
Mainstreaming intersex issues into public planning and policies is expected to address the humongous cost of medical intervention. Corrective surgery ranges between Sh125,000 to over Sh1.5 million depending on the magnitude of the condition. Hormonal treatment costs between Sh4,000 and Sh12,000 per session. The basic intersex diagnostic tests cost an average of Sh 142,000.
As the National Hospital Insurance Fund (NHIF) does not cover the cost for tests and surgery, the treatment burden is borne by the intersex individual or the family members.
There are calls for NHIF to be amended to accommodate their needs as most are enrolled with the fund.
“We have taken the NHIF cover but we can only use for ordinary ailments but not for procedures unique to us,” he says.
Other challenges facing intersex persons include using of facilities like toilets that are designated as either male or female. There are also instances of Intersex persons being treated like freak shows whenever they go to seek medical attention. Medical officers, unaccustomed to such a condition, call their colleagues to come see under the guise of seeking a second opinion.
“It’s traumatizing to have a group of curious doctors gawking at your naked body. We also need privacy,” he said.
Part of the recommendations include having mass awareness campaigns over the condition.
By Wagema Mwangi