Intersex babies killed at birth because ‘they’re bad omens’
There was nervous excitement in the air — Amogelang’s* sister was about to give birth.
Amogelang, a traditional healer who was also training to become a professional nurse, gladly volunteered to assist with her younger sister’s delivery in the family’s tiny home in rural North West province.
“We were hoping for a boy because we wanted to name him after our grandfather. But we experienced something we didn’t know how to say it. The baby was healthy and was crying like any baby but we were not sure what was happening between the legs of this child,” Amogelang says.
Because her mother and grandmother — both present at the birth — were “disappointed in the child” and its ambiguous genitalia, the three “agreed to kill the child and be silent [about it]”.
A quick, merciless twist of its neck later and the newborn, the “bad omen”, was gone.
“We buried it and told my sister that the child was stillborn. She didn’t argue it because we just told her not to ask too many questions.”
This is the testimony of Amogelang who had been interviewed by Tunchi Theriso*, an intersex rights activist based in the province.
In 2015, Theriso undertook a series of interviews with traditional healers, birth attendants, midwives and the mothers of the intersex children who had been killed. His work was part of an informal research project looking into intersex infanticide and neonaticide.
“There is a belief in some cultures that intersex babies are bad omens. They are seen as a sign of witchcraft and a curse on the family and the community as a whole,” says Theriso.
The Intersex Society of North America defines intersex as a “general term used for a variety of conditions in which a person is born with a reproductive or sexual anatomy that doesn’t seem to fit the typical definitions of female or male”.
“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 types. For example, 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 a labia. Or a person born with mosaic genetics, so that some of her cells have XX chromosomes and some of them have XY.”
Johannesburg-based paediatric endocrinologist Professor David Segal says it is estimated that one in a thousand people in South Africa are born intersex — one of the highest prevalence rates in the world.
A report by the South African Human Rights Commission found that “an estimated 70% of the South African population consult traditional health practitioners”. It is also estimated that “50% of women consult traditional birth attendants as their first choice during pregnancy, labour, delivery and postnatal care”.
But little, if any, formal research has been conducted into the intersection of traditional belief systems and intersex neonaticide and infanticide.
Shanaaz Mathews, the director of the University of Cape Town’s Children’s Institute, says: “Intersex infanticide is not a phenomenon we have observed in our national [child homicide] study, neither from our Child Death Review project.
“If this is a cultural practice, it can go fairly hidden as I am of the opinion that we have a larger problem of infanticide than we are reporting as these babies are dumped with no intention of them being found. Communities are also, in many instances, ‘turning a blind eye’ by not reporting it. As far as I know, there is no research on this issue.”
Although formal research might be thin on the ground, activists have, through informal research, been trying to shed light on the issue.
Shaine Griqua is the director of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) rights organisation called Legbo Northern Cape. From 2008 to 2010, the organisation conducted interviews with midwives and traditional birth attendants across the province.
“We undertook the research after a resident in one of the villages told us that her mother, who was a midwife, had said that when she ‘sees funny things’ on a child, she would — and this sounds really cruel to say — but she would ‘get rid of the child’. She felt it was her responsibility to do this because [these children] were a punishment from God.”
Of the 90 traditional birth attendants and midwives interviewed, 88 admitted to having done this.
Griqua adds that, since this research was conducted, a lot has changed as a result of educational drives by nongovernmental organisations working at securing greater rights for intersex people.
“But,” he concedes, “the pace of this change is very slow.”
Poppy Ngubeni is a traditional healer and independent researcher into African medicine. Ngubeni, who has, as recently as last year, conducted research into intersex infanticide in KwaZulu-Natal, Lesotho, Gauteng, Limpopo and the Eastern Cape says: “When an intersex baby is born, it is viewed as a sign that the ancestors are angry about something. The traditional birth attendants I have spoken to have justified the strangling of these babies as ‘an act of love’. They believe that, in doing this, they are saving the mother from too many questions from the community.”
Some may view their actions as an act of love but others are more callous.
Masechaba*, who was also interviewed by Theriso, gave birth to twins — one of whom was visibly intersex. She was told that one of her babies was stillborn.
Shortly afterwards the midwife left the village but Masechaba “kept seeking for her” and once she found her, was told “that my baby was not stillborn”.
“She [the midwife] said the body was crushed [to make] muthi so that she could be rich. I wanted to open a murder case but she said that she could kill more [babies] because she still had the old parts of my dead child. So I just had to accept it and move on.”
The midwife had convinced Masechaba’s mother to “twist my child’s neck because the child was not normal”, says Masechaba.
“If my mother kept the child alive, the midwife said, it might happen that we will never experience rain anymore because the child is a curse on the community.”
Another mother, Khutso*, recalled how she lost her five-year-old — “a gift to me and the community” — after placing her intersex child in the care of family and friends.
“I was working on farms in the Northern Cape and one day I came home and I was just told that my child was swimming in the river and drowned. They told me that no one could save her and that the police also couldn’t find her body,” Khutso says.
“But I found out that she was killed by the son of the chief of the village. People believe that fresh blood can make you rich or the chief can use the blood to rebuild his dignity.”
Losing her daughter was “hard and painful for me and the father”, she says. “We [the father and I] accepted the child as she was.”
With the aim of fostering greater acceptance of intersex people, the transgender and intersex rights organisation, Iranti.org — along with Intersex South Africa and the Commission for the Promotion and Protection of the Rights of Cultural, Religious and Linguistic Communities — hosted a national dialogue in October last year.
Under the theme Intersex Rights in Rural Settings, the dialogue saw activists, government representatives, community healthcare workers and traditional healers discuss “the severe human rights violations which continue to take place against intersex persons, specifically infants and children, in rural and traditional settings”.
Iranti’s Joshua Sehoole says traditional healers conceded during the dialogue that “they know [infanticide] happens and that it was common with those who have albinism and are intersex”.
Sehoole adds that the organisation was hoping that the commission would “spearhead education initiatives with traditional leaders”.
Thoko Mkhwanazi-Xaluva, the commission’s chairperson, says that allegations of infanticide had been brought to the commission’s attention by activists.
“The commission has engaged organisations of traditional healers who train traditional midwives. They all informed us that none of their training includes the killing of intersex newborns. We have asked them to conscientise their members of this alleged crime that is happening. As the commission we are totally against the murders of newborn babies based on any cultural belief.”
Mkhwanazi-Xaluva adds that traditional healers across the country have “committed to alert us whenever such cases are found and to assist the relevant families to report these murders to the police. The commission has also committed to work more with traditional leaders to conscientise their communities and to monitor what is happening in rural areas so that there are post-mortems when newborn babies die. This is a continuing engagement that will ensure that the rights of newborn babies are protected and the lives of intersex children are saved.”
In responding to questions sent by the Mail & Guardian, the department of health and the Society of Midwives of South Africa stated that the issue of intersex infanticide “had not been brought to [their] attention”. Both also strongly condemned the practice.
“This kind of practice is coming to our attention for the first time. However, we have a position statement that advocates for compassionate, respectful maternity care. There is a need for a detailed further research on this matter,” said a representative of the midwives society.
Secrecy about intersex infanticide could, however, be a stumbling block in substantive research. That, and a scarcity of resources.
“We haven’t conducted any further research into this because of a lack of resources. It takes time and money, especially because the Northern Cape is such a large province,” says Griqua.
Ngubeni adds that she often has to “make some plan” to ensure she gets to pursue the work she does. But she does it because “if nothing is being done about it, this thing is going to keep happening again and again and again. The thing is, traditional healing is as old as creation and it does good. Both Western and African medicine have brought us all a lot of good. But with this thing, people are using tradition and culture to protect something which is humanly unacceptable behaviour.”
It’s this kind of unacceptable behaviour that harms mothers like Khutso.
Although Khutso was eventually shown where the son of the village chief buried the remains of her daughter, it has brought her little comfort.
“I do still miss my child. Her death affected me in many ways. I failed my daughter. I regret the day I went out of that village and left her with people I thought I could trust,” she says. “I only have two words for her spirit where she is now: to just sleep and to rest in peace.”
* Not their real names
Carl Collison is the Other Foundation’s Rainbow Fellow at the M&G