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December 14, 2018

The plight of intersex persons

Ryan Muiruri outside Parliament buildings during the celebration of the International Day of Intersex people on October 20 last year. / RHODA ODHIAMBO
Ryan Muiruri outside Parliament buildings during the celebration of the International Day of Intersex people on October 20 last year. / RHODA ODHIAMBO

“Where is Ruth?” The teller asked. “I am Ruth,” Ruth replied. He had made a visit to a bank to open an account after his friend sent him money from France and wanted to deposit it.

The teller asked again: “Where is Ruth?” He responded; “I am the one.”

Ruth who now identifies as a male and goes by the name Ryan Muiruri, was clad in a dress and flat shoes and his physical appearance did not match the picture on his ID. However they were the same person.

After waiting for the teller to finish signing and stamping the forms, Ryan was surprised to see two police officers behind him. When he questioned why he was being treated like a suspect, he was informed by one of the officers, that he was impersonating someone else. Little did they know that they were the same person.

Before the officers escorted him out of the bank to another room, he pleaded with the teller not allow the officers to take him away but his plea fell on deaf ears.

Ryan tells me that he was taken to a room behind the bank and it was during this time that his rights were violated by people who are supposed to protect him.

He was locked in that room for close to three hours.

“In order for us to help you, you have to tell us the truth. One of the officers said. “I am the one whose picture is on that ID. I am an intersex person,” Ryan told the officers.

“What did you say you are? (laughing) What or who is that? Tell us the truth that you wanted to open an account with someone else’s ID,” the officers insisted.

Ryan; “No. That is not the case. I am Ruth and am an intersex person. An intersex person is someone who either has both male and female organs or has an ambiguous genitalia.”

One of the officers; “Did you just say that you have two private parts? That of a man and a woman? How were you born? We must confirm what your are saying.”

Ryan allowed the officers to touch him inappropriately just to prove that he was telling the truth. He was “searched” by a female officer. Even after touching him inappropriately, they still locked her in that room for another two hours.

Just when he was about to lose hope, he remembered one person who saved her from further humiliation, nominated MP Isaac Mwaura.

He asked the officers if he could make a phone call and he rang Mwaura, who explained to the officers for a second time who he was and why he does not resemble the person on his ID.

When he left the room, the teller at the bank asked him why he did not tell her and all he could say was: “When I pleaded with you, you only watched me being taken away by the cops like a prisoner.”

The Intersex Society of North America defines “intersex” as a general term used for various conditions where a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male.

The society states that a person might be born appearing to be female on the outside, but having mostly male-typical anatomy on the inside. Or a person may be born with genitals that seem to be in-between the usual male and female type.

Ryan was born 28 years ago and was named Ruth Mwihaki Wangui by his mother. He changed his name to Ryan after he discovered that he was not a girl. He named himself after one of his favorite uncles.

CONSTANT QUESTIONS

When Ryan and other intersex persons grow up, they are faced with the challenge of people seeking to know who they are, and they would do anything they can to achieve their motive.

Intersex children in Kenya are usually seen as a curse by the community. Some mothers opt to take care of the children, despite the harsh words being thrown at them by close family members and the community, while others decide to give away their children or dump them outside children’s homes.

Some of those who grow up and are lucky to have ID cards find themselves on the wrong side of the law, especially when they are arrested for a mistake they did not commit.

The worst part is when they are arrested and are subjected to police searches, some of which do not conform to the law.

Despite President Uhuru Kenyatta signing into law the Persons Deprived of Liberty Act in 2014, police officers do not seem to be aware of this law.

The act, which came into effect a year later, defines an intersex person as one who has been competently certified by a medical practitioner to have both male and female organs. Those who do not have both genitalia have ambiguous genitalia. For instance, a girl may be born with a noticeably large clitoris, or lacking a vaginal opening, or a boy may be born with a notably small penis, or with a scrotum that is divided so that it has formed more like labia.

Section 10 of the same act states that if an intersex person is arrested, he/she should be allowed to decide the person who will conduct a body search on them.

STOPPED AND FRISKED

Should the body search be intrusive, then it should be undertaken in privacy. This, however, was not the case for Ryan, especially during his third ordeal in the hands of a traffic police officer.

“I remember vividly what happened two years ago. I was driving out of Nakuru town at 80kph. The officer stopped me and asked for my licence and registration,” Ryan said.

When I showed him my licence, he asked why I carried my wife’s licence. When I insisted that it’s mine, he told me to step out of the car and he touched me intrusively in an open area.

“I had no option but to allow him to touch me. I wanted to get everything over with. One thing that people should know is that my heart gets broken into pieces each time an officer stops me and suspects that I have committed an offence simply because my physical appearance contradicts my ID. I should not walk around with a sign saying I am an intersex,” Ryan said.

Ryan is one among many intersex persons who have been arrested and accused of impersonating other people. Sadly, despite having a law that recognises them, they are often mistreated by the society. Some have even committed suicide.

Lawyer John Chigiti, who fights for the rights of intersex persons, terms as heartbreaking the ignorance of police officers who violate the rights of intersex persons by conducting body searches on them inappropriately.

Chigiti notes that the dispensation to crime as a result of being an intersex person is a fact that already puts them in a position to commit crime.

“Why are they being arrested? To make it worse it is also dehumanising to endure the humiliation of someone touching you inappropriately, which is wrong and must stop,” Chigiti said.

Intersex persons never chose to be born the way they are. It was not their choice. However, a number of people are not eager to accept them but are only curious to know about their sex life.

RESPECT, ACCEPTANCE

“All I want is for people to accept me the way I was born without asking me unnecessary questions, like what is between my legs. It is sad enough that I live in a society that would take the slightest opportunity to strip me, as opposed to respecting me,” Ryan added.

Apart from being treated harshly and being given nick names by the society; these people get little or no protection from police officers who are mandate to protect every citizen.

“In an effort to defend themselves in a situation where they are not to blame, perhaps when being attacked by a mob, whenever they defend themselves, they always end up on the wrong side of the law,” Chigiti added.

Felicity Thompson, a Human Rights Watch member, said the government should not just come up with policies but ensure they are followed to the letter and punish lawbreakers.

“Intersex people deserve the same rights and protections as any person in Kenya. The government should ensure they are able to choose their sex on official identity documents, attend school and are free from medically unnecessary surgeries,” Thompson added.

Ryan, who was born some 28 years ago in Nanyuki, was raised by his grandparents and his mother. His father abandoned them after he learnt about his condition.

“My mother told me that when I was born, the doctor told her to “take me as a girl”. He also told my mother that whatever they say growing around my private area would disappear.”

That is how Ryan was named Ruth Muiruri. Ryan had a difficult time growing up as a child. He tells me that some of his relatives gave his mothers suggestions on how “to deal with his condition as he was not a normal child”. He has also attempted to commit suicide five times as a child.

“My childhood was not as rosy as yours. I was constantly being targeted by my peers, who wanted to know why I am different. Making friends was also hard. I always wanted to play football with other boys but they could not accept me because I was a “girl”. The girls also couldn’t accept me because I looked like a boy,” Ryan says.

Three years ago, lawyer Chigiti won a case where the court ordered the government to issue a birth certificate to a five-year-old child born with ambiguous genitalia. According to Chigiti, this was a landmark ruling and the first step towards recognising intersex people.

The court also ordered the Attorney General to name an agency that would take responsibility for conducting a census of intersex Kenyans and develop guidelines and policies for their recognition and support. This is yet to happen.

The little milestone achieved is in the Persons Deprived of Liberty Act, which is the first act in the country that recognises these people. When Kenya marked the International Day of Intersex Persons on October 20 last year, close to 100 families of intersex persons came out, demanding to be accepted by the society for who they are.

Nominated MP Isaac Mwaura is coming up with bill to support the third gender to end discrimination against those who identify as intersex.

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