Babalwa Mtshawu’s puberty was never encountered. She didn’t get her period when she was growing up or increasing breasts like the other women around her.
Born in Mthatha, east of South Africa, she claims the conservative nature of her family made talking about her body hard for her.
“Because of all the signs, I knew something wasn’t quite correct with my body from a young era. But we’ve never talked about sexual or reproductive health from a black family where we’re so traditional,” Mtshawu said.
At the age of 25, after years of trying to figure out why she was different, she finally booked an appointment with the doctor.
“The doctors ran some tests, and that’s when I discovered that I am intersex,” she said.
What is intersex?
Intersex is a term used to describe a variety of conditions where a person is born with sexual or reproductive anatomy that does not fit the regular definitions of male or female.
The figures are difficult to get through but up to 1.7 percent of all live births are intersex, according to a study in the American journal of human biology.
Like Mtshawu, an intersex person may be born appearing to be outwardly female, but mostly inwardly having male-typical anatomy.
Dr. David Segal, who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of people with growth and development disorders in Johannesburg, says there are many possible variations of being intersex, involving genitalia, chromosome patterns, and hormones.
For example, a person may be born with both testicular and ovarian tissues or have a combination of male and female chromosomes.
At birth, some intersex characteristics are evident, others occur only during puberty. And a person can sometimes live their entire life without ever discovering that they are intersex.
Many individuals do not comprehend intersexuality, according to Segal, because they did not consider that anatomy and hormones need not be exclusively male or female.
“Everybody wants to do a boy or a girl. There is no space outside this spectrum that was made for individuals born, “he said.
‘Sorcery and witchcraft’
Mtshawu, now 32, says babies discovered to be intersex at birth are sometimes killed due to the traditional belief that they are bad luck.
Some traditional healers, midwives, and birth attendants have confessed murdering children with indefinite genitalia, according to a 2018 study by the South African Mail and Guardian newspaper.
These babies are considered a manifestation of sorcery and witchcraft.
Many intersex children are also subjected to non-consensual medical interventions.
In the 1960s, doctors found ways to perform surgeries intended to help patients keep to more conventional characteristics of one sex, but the outcomes of some of these surgeries did not follow the patients final gender identities.
These surgeries led some patients in the United States to feel a mismatch between their sex and gender, according to a 2017 Human Rights Watch report.
submitted to the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights by the Legal Resource Center, a human rights organization, surgery is carried out on the genitals of newborn babies and children for cultural reasons.
Some of those subjected to these surgeries have declared it cruel and unnecessary, citing damage including sterility, genital sensitivity and post surgical depression, says the report.
Nthabiseng Mokoena, a South African human rights activist, claims there’s a lot of support for unnecessary and coerced surgery on intersex people’s genitals to fit social norms of what’s deemed male or female.
Mokoena, whose preferred pronoun is ‘they’ says some doctors prescribed surgery even though they didn’t have any health complications.
“Happily, I had a mother who was very supportive and shielded me from the unnecessary operations that the physicians had been proposing. She taught me at a young era to respect and embrace diversity,” she said.
A lecturer at the University of Stellenbosch, Mtshawu suggests that intersexuality contains many misconceptions.
She got weird emails from individuals when she openly shared her tale on YouTube, “They believe intersex is cool. Sometimes they say things like ‘I wish I were you so that I don’t have to worry about being pregnant’,” she said.
The South African Constitution mandates gender and sexual diversity education, but many colleges do not include teaching sexual differences in their curriculums.
The teaching of learners on intersexuality will, according to Mtshawu, decrease current misconceptions. “The curriculum in South Africa is evolving slowly, and I believe intersex education is simple, as biology is simple. It is like someone who was born without an arm or an extra finger,” she said. This is an event of nature.
Besides misunderstandings, in schools, healthcare equipment and competitive sports, people with sex differences are discriminated against.
Last year, the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) introduced a new regulation for female athletes with a difference of sexual development (DSD).
DSD is a condition where a person’s sex development involving genes, reproductive organs and hormones is different from other people’s.
According to the regulation, those with testosterone levels above a certain limit have to use medication to reduce their blood testosterone level for a continuous period of at least six months.
South Africa’s middle-distance runner and Olympic gold medalist, Kester Semenya, who has naturally high testosterone levels, is fighting this regulation in court and accuses the sports governing body of unfairly targeting him .
The 28-year-old Semenya initially received a temporary lift on testosterone rules, but in July the Swiss Federal Tribunal pulled out of international competitions such as the World Championships to be held in Doha in September, reversing the regulation.
Even though the court found the regulation to be very discriminatory, it also stated that it was “necessary, reasonable and proportionate”.
Despite discrimination and abuse, it is not at all sad and doom. South Africa has enacted laws to protect the rights of intersex individuals.