In Uganda, “many are not free to speak about the development of their bodies, especially if they have been tampered with through invasive surgeries and other traumatic medical processes”.
Amy Fallon

28 Jul 2017 - 12:33 PM  UPDATED 28 Jul 2017 - 12:34 PM

The ignominy is seared in Gloria’s mind.

She was 14, but she was the only girl in her class who hadn’t yet developed breasts or started her period.

One day, Gloria and her friends were performing what is known in Uganda as “pulling pulling”, a ritual where a female pulls another’s clitoris with her hands to enlarge it. It’s done “so a man respects her so much”, explains Gloria, now in her late 20s.

As other girls pulled down Gloria’s underpants, Gloria saw the "horrified" expressions spread across their faces.

“They found out that I’m not like them, something was missing,” recalls the Ugandan, speaking to SBS today wearing a frilly blouse, her hair short and feminine. 

“They were so surprised they didn’t know what to say, they didn’t know what they were seeing.”

Gloria, who was born with a very small uterus, is intersex. The term, also the subject of a recent Amnesty report, is used to describe a wide group of people with sex characteristics that fall outside the normal male or female binary. “Some people with such variations describe themselves as intersex, some do not,” highlights Amnesty.

These can include differences in primary sex characteristics like internal and external genitalia, reproductive systems, hormone levels and sex chromosomes. Differences may also take place in secondary sex characteristics, which become evident at puberty.

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Although nearly two per cent of children around the globe are born with variations of sex characteristics every year, according to Amnesty, intersexuality is not always understood.

Under the advisement of doctors, many parents with intersex children will force them to undergo surgery in order to become “normal” in appearance. Amnesty has condemned these procedures as “invasive and irreversible, and often not emergency-driven”.

In Uganda, where homosexual acts are illegal, and where the majority of society grapples to understand homosexuality and transgenderism, some children born intersex have their penises cut off, says Julius Kaggwa. He is an intersex person and the executive director of Support Initiative for People With Atypical Sex Development (SIPD Uganda), a non-governmental organisation (NGO) which has been trying to create awareness about intersexuality since 2006.

It is unknown how many in the east African country are intersex, says Kaggwa, although SIPD assist over 1,400 people across Uganda.

He says that “bodies and sexuality are such private topics in many societies, mainly due to moral and religious traditions”.

In Uganda, “many are not free to speak about the development of their atypical bodies, especially if they have been tampered with through invasive surgeries and other traumatic medical processes”, says Kaggwa.

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Gloria was born in a remote part of western Uganda and was two years old when her parents took her to hospital. Doctors told the family that they could operate to open up her uterus when she reached age four. Before this could happen, both her parents tragically died, and Gloria’s aunties and uncles became her guardians.

“In the dormitory I hated myself,” Gloria, who has always worn dresses and played netball, recalls of her experiences attending a girls’ boarding school.

“I would wait for the other girls to finish bathing, then go alone.”

A turning point for her came when she saw Kaggwa on television in 2010.

Kaggwa was born with both male and female genitals.

His parents had raised him as “Julia”, but when he was a teenager he had realised he was a man, and later had surgery to close his vagina.

Gloria tracked him down.

Kaggwa took her to Ugandan doctors who told her that if she wished she could have surgery, but she would have to go abroad.

Today Gloria is still trying to raise the money for this, along with hormone replacement therapy.

Until then, SIPD are providing emotional support to her, giving her skills training so she can fulfil her dream of working in a salon, and have introduced her to other intersex people.

“They’ve taught me that no matter what happens you have to love yourself, you have to be you,” says Gloria.

But life is still hard.

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“Most people who know about your problem tell you, ‘you are gay’,” says Gloria.

She has never had a boyfriend because she fears getting close to a man, and says, “I feel sad because I would like to get married”.

“I want to be a mother,” she adds. She has been told this is possible if she has surgery, something she hasn’t given up on.

SIPD stress that an intersex individual should be able to make an informed decision on whether they need surgery.

“Not every intersex person has to have surgery, because some manifestations of intersexuality are at the hormonal level and may not necessarily require it,” says Kaggwa.

“But hormonal influences can cause body formation for which an intersex person may opt for surgical intervention, if they so wish.”

Although Uganda is much further ahead in supporting intersex people than any other country in the region, and has passed some progressive legislation, this still falls short, says the charity. They soon plan to petition Parliament, calling for legislation to allow intersex people to easily obtain or change documentation if there has been a change of assigned sex, among other measures.  

Now 47-years-old and a father of four, Kaggwa says that “after years of advocacy” in Uganda, there is “greater understanding” of what it means to be intersex now.

“Our ultimate goal is to ensure that we have a society that is tolerant of everyone and where one identity does not have to be problematic to those who do not share it,” he says.