‘We are all human beings’

June 21, 2021

Mphatso Sakala, the Founder and Director of the Intersex Society of Zambia, speaks about the issues and challenges facing intersex people during recording of the Afric Intersex Podcast. Mphatso was raised female but now identifies with the gender pronoun “he/him/they”. Photo: ISSZ.

"Intersex people are born with sex characteristics (including genitals, gonads and chromosome patterns) that do not fit typical binary notions of male or female bodies. Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe a wide range of natural bodily variations. In some cases, intersex traits are visible at birth while in others, they are not apparent until puberty. Some chromosomal intersex variations may not be physically apparent at all. According to experts, between 0.05% and 1.7% of the population is born with intersex traits".

Source: UN Free & Equal

“Being intersex, I would bluntly say, it’s not easy,” says Mphatso Sakala.

Mphatso is one of the up to 1.7 percent of people born intersex – or people born with sex characteristics that do not fit the typical definitions of being male or female.

“For me growing up, I noticed the difference when I was just in my primary school years,” he says. “But I came to understand that I was intersex, and that people like me are intersex, when I started asking questions and trying to find out who I really was.”

Mphatso is the Founder and Director of the Intersex Society of Zambia (ISSZ). The organization, which was founded in 2018 and started operations in April 2019, is seeking to ensure inclusion of intersex people across social, economic, legal and policy spheres. In their short existence, they have made some impressive accomplishments through determined advocacy and awareness raising, including building visibility in the media, on social media and producing the Afric Intersex Podcast.

Since 2019, ISSZ and the UN Development Programme (UNDP) have engaged in a partnership to advance intersex inclusion and equality, through the Linking Policy to Programming project which aims to strengthen HIV and sexual and reproductive health-related rights of young key populations in Angola, Madagascar, Mozambique, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

The ISSZ team at the recording studio as they produce an episode for their Afric Intersex Podcast. Photo: ISSZ.

Together, ISSZ and UNDP are working to ensure that children born with differences in sex characteristics can enjoy their full human rights, are not stigmatized or discriminated against and lead productive and fulfilling lives. The inclusion of intersex people, and other sexual minorities, is core to the Sustainable Development Agenda, and its principle of “leaving no one behind.”

“In Zambia, especially when it comes to traditions and religion, there are a lot of myths attached to someone being born intersex. For some, they'll say it's a bad omen, they’ll say it’s a punishment for the sins your parents committed in the past,” he explains. “So it is surrounded with a lot of stigma and discrimination, and a lot of secrecy. Often, families would prefer to just keep that information within themselves in order to run away from the issues of stigma and discrimination.”

Motivation to persevere and create positive change for his community comes from Mphatso’s own lived experiences and supportive family. “It comes from the things I went through. I thought – if I’m able to talk with people, if I’m able to share the issues we are going through, why can't I be a voice for those who cannot speak for themselves?”

In this journey of understanding the needs and promoting the rights of intersex people in Zambia, Mphatso is working with UNDP, which is supporting the work of the organization and its members. One of the main interventions UNDP is supporting is the development of a Medical Management Protocol for Intersex Persons in Zambia which is being developed in collaboration with the Zambia Medical Association and the National AIDS Commission. The protocol is mainly intended to guide medical professionals on the management of infant intersex cases. 

Though data on corrective or normalization therapy in Zambia is limited, there are indications that such procedures for babies is provided at health facilities. These medical interventions are often based on the physical features at the time and are heavily influenced by doctors and parents, rather than consent from the individuals themselves (who can be very young). Furthermore, the interventions are generally irreversible and can result in disruptions to their physical and psychological well-being. Such practices are advised against by human rights advocates and current scientific literature.

The Medical Management Protocol, which is in line with the Zambian Constitutional rights to dignity, life, self-determination and right to health, instead will promote the provision of comprehensive health services that includes psychological support and counselling to the child and family as an alternative.

“The Intersex Management Protocol is very crucial in that when an intersex person is born the first contacts are with medical practitioners, and we've come to understand that in most cases, they don't have any sort of guide on how to proceed with intersex cases,” reveals Mphatso.

“Having this protocol will assist medical professionals to know how best to work with intersex persons and it will serve as a guide for them.”

The goal will be for the protocol to be adopted by the Ministry of Health and rolled out nationwide, ensuring that children born with differences in sex characteristics can enjoy their full human rights, are not stigmatized or discriminated against and lead productive and fulfilling lives. It is expected to be the first such guideline in the Southern African Development Community.

In addition to the protocol, UNDP is also engaging with ISSZ to conduct a policy review on legal recognition for intersex people, which will examine the challenges faced by this community and make recommendations for policy reform. Intersex people sometimes do not identify with the sex or gender they were assigned at birth and can find it difficult to access basic social services and fully participate in society as a result.

“Being able to legally change the sex marker on our official identity documents will have a significant impact towards reducing the social exclusion that we face,” says Mphatso.

It is hoped that the partnership with UNDP will bring about significant and positive change for the lives of intersex people in Zambia.

“I’d like to call on people to start taking an interest in and understanding the issues of the intersex community,” says Mphatso. “Being born intersex does not make you less of a human being, we are all human beings, and we have human rights which need to be protected.”

To learn about the Linking Policy to Programming project, visit our website.

UNDP acknowledges and thanks the Intersex Society of Zambia for providing photographs and for cooperating on the development of this story.