GROWING up as an intersex came with many challenges, says Mphatso Sakala.
Sakala is the founder and director of Intersex Society of Zambia (ISSZ).
He says he decided to start the ISSZ because issues around intersex were rarely spoken about or addressed.
He says for the longest time, intersex persons have only existed on paper.
Sakala says in addition, in Zambia, the law does not even recognise the existence of intersex persons.
“Moreover, in cases where they are spoken about, the focus is on adult intersex persons leaving out intersex infants and adolescents. Understanding that intersex is biological means issues around an intersex person should be looked into from the time they are born but if the focus will be on adults then what happens to an intersex child from the time they are born till the time they reach adolescence, then into adulthood?” he asks.
“This is a crucial stage where guidance on the upbringing of an intersex child is supposed to be given to try to mitigate some of the problems which may arise later in life when an intersex person reaches puberty e.g. surgical interventions. It is for this reason that Intersex Society of Zambia (ISSZ) was founded. It aims to facilitate the recognition and protection of children, adolescents and adults born intersex in Zambia.”
He says growing up as an intersex person comes with many restrictions.
Sakala, 34, says he could not mingle freely with his mates.
“When I go out to play, I would have to be checked on often and at times called home, and while my friends would bath together with their friends outside, I could not because I needed to protect my identity,” he says.
Sakala says in his early years in primary school, he had already realised he was attracted to girls, considering that he had been assigned a female gender and given that he was given a female name, it was very difficult for him to express who he was.
“I tried to align myself to how society expected me to behave but it was challenging for me, even worse at school. I wore a girl’s uniform which I was not comfortable with. It was a battle between expressing myself as to who I was and society’s expectation of me behaving and carrying myself as a girl (the assigned female gender),” he says
“As I hit puberty, my body started musicalising, which now started confusing people even more. Some people would say I looked male and others said I looked female. At that point, in my life, I stopped paying attention to how people saw me, whichever way someone looked at me, whether male or female, they were correct because I fall in the middle (I am intersex) and I understood they were not aware of the existence of intersex persons so there was no need for me to argue with them, it was pointless.”
He says when it came to relationship issues, it was another river to cross.
Sakala says he has faced a lot issues.
“For example, I have received concerns from families of some of the persons I have dated like if I have a child with their daughter, the child may be born intersex like me. There is so much to face. Having to explain who I am to the person I fall in love with is another issue, because I do not even know how they will take it; whether they will run screaming to tell everyone about who I am or if they will reject me, are some of the fears which come with getting into a relationship as an intersex person,” he says.
“If you find someone who accepts you, you find that they may be affected by what society says about your relationship and if they cannot handle the pressure, they decide to leave. This has also been driven by the myths that intersex persons are a curse, a taboo or they are born that way as a punishment, for an offence, which their parents committed. I personally experienced bullying at school, especially during my primary education.”
He says even just accessing a public toilet became a nightmare.
He says access to affirming health services is a challenge up to this day.
“You have to explain yourself every now and then to medical practitioners and if you are not careful, before you know it, you become an exhibition for learning. While genitals for persons who were born male or female are private parts, that of an intersex person have become public parts which everyone wants to see, which is very unfair. The list of challenges is long; the bottom line is that an intersex person is a human being who has rights, which need to be protected just like any other person,” he says.
Sakala says the Intersex Society of Zambia’s (ISSZ) focus groups are children, adolescent and adults who were born Intersex.
He says ISSZ is still a young organisation and definitely, with time and when they build capacity and resource base, it will expend to other provinces.
Sakala says there is not enough awareness on intersex issues in communities and the information gap is big.
“Most of the available information is based on the myths, this calls for more awareness raising in our societies, including different government ministries, especially the policy makers. Intersex persons need documentation, access to affirming health care services, education and other service provisions offered by the state,” he says.
“While awareness of the existence of intersex people is slowly growing, our government has not taken concrete measures to uphold their rights and protect them from abuse. Ending abuses will also require the government to raise awareness of the rights of intersex people, to protect them from discrimination on ground of sex characteristics, including access to health care, education, employment, sports and obtaining official documents, as well as protection when they are deprived of liberty. They should also combat the root causes of these violations such as harmful stereotypes, stigma and pathologisation and provide training to health professionals and public officials, including legislators, the judiciary and policy-makers.”
On the perception that intersex had to do with homosexuality, Sakala says intersex is about the biological makeup of a person (sex of an individual).
He says therefore, intersex and homosexuality are not the same.
Sakala says he intends to change this perspective by creating awareness, advocating for human rights protection, welfare and respect for intersex individuals through evidence-based information dissemination (existence and experiences of intersex persons) and public education in our societies.
“As well as create safe spaces for intersex persons to build self-esteem and confidence to be able to voice out their issues, challenging existing discriminatory and oppressive practices relating to sex development variations and demystify the existing myths on intersex,” he says.
Sakala says coming out in the open has changed his life and people’s perceptions.
“It is as if a weight was lifted off my shoulders the day I came out because I do not have to live in secrecy. I must confess it was not easy, it came with a lot of bad depressing comments which maybe have been attributed to the lack of knowledge on intersex fueled by the existing cultural beliefs, traditional and societal norms,” he says.
“I believe my coming out also initiated conversations and raised curiosity in society to want to find out and learn more on intersex to have a better understanding of what it really is, which is a good thing. I am sure with time our societies will have an understanding and be able to create an enabling environment for persons born intersex in our societies today and for generations to come.”
Sakala thanked his parents who never treated him different from the rest of his siblings.
He says his parents encouraged him to embrace who he was and live life to the best of his ability. “Being born different does not take away the fact that you are our child,” they would say. “Wherever I am, I always, remember their words ‘Mphatso, in life, you can never have everything you want, you need to live within your means and always remember that God does not make mistakes and God has a purpose for your life”.
Sakala tells young people who may be in a similar situation and don’t know where to go that being born intersex is normal.
H says they should never see themselves or feel less of a human being because they are wonderfully made in the image of God.
“The first step to living a fulfilling life is self-acceptance, they are not alone and there are more out there who are like them as such they should never at any point feel alone. They should always remember that each one of us exists for a purpose (Jeremiah 29:11 – For I know the plans I have for you’, declares the LORD, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, but plans to give you hope and a future). The best we can do is try to understand our purpose, life is too short to waste our time worrying about what people are saying/think about us. Moreover, they do not even understand us, focus on your dreams and leave a mark on this earth,” says Sakala.
“If they need someone to talk to, they can reach out to Intersex Society of Zambia (ISSZ), by sending us a message via our Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/IntersexZambiaOrg, email email@example.com or give us a call on +260770739726 or +260956200168. We shall be more than happy to hear from the intersex youths as well their parents, especially the mothers who are always blamed for the birth of an intersex child.”