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Kenya becomes first African country to recognise intersex people in its census

October 10, 2019
topic:LGBT Rights
tags:#Africa, #Kenya, #Intersex, #sex, #census, #Gender
by:Bob Koigi
In a first for an African country, Kenya recently recognised people whose sexual anatomy does not fit into the traditional descriptions of male or female through its census.

Conservative figures put the number of intersex people in the East African nation at 700,000 in a country with a population of close to 50 million. Globally the United Nations estimate that 1.7 per cent of the global population exhibit intersex traits.

The decision to recognise this category is a culmination of a long journey that has been fought in courtrooms, in the streets and in parliament as intersex people decry discrimination and denial of basic rights that have seen a majority of them sink into depression, go into hiding and in some instances take their lives.

James Kinyona recalls the numerous times he was humiliated and shamed for being an intersex person from his early school days. Still grappling with his ambiguous genitalia and facing ridicule he went into depression and considered suicide. “I have never recovered from those episodes in school. I always dreaded going to the toilet or showering with the rest of my classmates because they would tease me and slap me. At one time they called almost everyone in school to watch me naked,” he recalled.

In conservative Kenyan societies where such children are branded as bad omen and their families ostracised, parents tend to either hide their children or take them to doctors for surgery. The psychological impact on the children is lifelong. But one woman moved to court in 2009 when doctors indicated a question mark next to the gender option on the birth certificate of her child. Her prayers to the court were to compel the government to give her documents that identified her child’s gender to allow the child attend school, a law that would stop surgery on intersex babies unless it was deemed medically necessary and provision of enough information to parents of intersex children including psychological support.

Five years later, the High Court granted her wish and instructed the government to issue the child with a birth certificate. It also ordered for the creation of a taskforce to recommend ways of supporting intersex children. In its report, the taskforce recommended among others, the inclusion of an intersex identifier in public documents, delayed surgery until the children were old enough to make the decision on their own and a survey on the number of intersex people in the country.

And while the latest enumeration became historic for including intersex people, experts argue that while this will now inform government policies and planning while allowing the intersex people access to rights that were traditionally denied to them including healthcare and education, there still needs to be more awareness especially to the public on how to treat the intersex people. “There is still so much misinformation on who the intersex people are and the needs and rights they are entitled like the rest of us. They are predominantly seen as part of the gay community and therefore face stigma and assault. We have treated so many such cases,” said Philomena Muchui a psychologist. Such concerns, it is argued, may have prevented some of the intersex people to volunteer that information during the census.

But the landmark decision by the government has now emboldened the resolve by human rights activists in Kenya to push for a law that will see intersex Kenyans change their sex status on national identification cards and other recognition documents. This, as Kenya continues to win global recognition and admiration for joining a select number of countries predominantly in South Asia, Europe and 12 US states that have included intersex people as the third gender either in identification documents or in national censuses. In Africa, the Kenyan decision has sparked debate and policy considerations in a continent that has traditionally been apprehensive and cagey to openly embrace intersex people.

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Intersex People Recognized in Kenya Census.
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