For Intersex activist Nthabiseng Mokoena, the shame is over

September 16, 2014

Free to be Me is the name of Hivos’ 2014 campaign to bring the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LHBTI) people worldwide to the attention of the Dutch public. At issue is the freedom and the right to be who you are and to love who you want. As part of this campaign, Hivos spoke with the South African activist Nthabiseng Mokoena, who was born with an intersex condition.

“A greater public awareness of the situation of intersex people, and especially those who are black, is what I regard as my greatest personal success. Intersexuality is such a taboo – not only in South Africa, but throughout the world. We are surrounded by shame and secrecy. It’s like we don’t exist. But when I tell my story on television, I get calls from people who say, ‘I’m just like you. I experienced the same thing’. That means a lot to me.”

Deep shame

Nthabiseng Mokoena is a young woman from South Africa who works at Transgender and Intersex Africa (TIA). On YouTube, she speaks openly and frankly about who she is and what this means for her: “I ??was born with an intersex condition, with both male and female sexual characteristics, and for a long time I felt deeply ashamed of myself. I struggled intensely with the question of my identity. “What was it like to give birth to me?” I asked my mother all the time. My mother was always very supportive of me, but it took a long time before she could answer the question. One day she said, “The only thing I wished was that when you were born, you would never have to feel the pain I felt”. She was not ashamed of me, but society blamed her because her child was different from the others, so she was all alone.”  


The Hivos office in South Africa nominated TIA to participate in the Equal Rights for LGBTI programme organised by the Ministries of Foreign Affairs and Culture, which invited them to take part in the 2014 Amsterdam Gay Pride. Nthabiseng is pleased with the kind of support Hivos provides for a significant portion of TIA’s development work in rural areas. “Most donors see this work as unimportant; they want you to focus mainly on advocacy. But South Africa actually proves that good legislation does not change people’s mentality. Trans and intersex individuals exist and have no reason to be ashamed, but many caregivers are prone to transphobia because they are not well informed. This also applies to the police. So for us it is important that Hivos supports education and awareness projects.”

Changing the mind-set

Transgender and Intersex Africa focuses on the black townships and rural areas. “A lot of problems in South Africa are related to the socioeconomic class of people. This also applies to intersex and transgender people. A prosperous transgender has access to medical facilities, lives in a safe neighbourhood and suffers less discrimination. Because I live in a township and am one of the first prominent intersex personalities in South Africa, I sometimes hear very hurtful things on the street. But then I remember why I’m doing this work: to change that mentality”, says Nthabiseng. 


The TIA coordinator is positive about the Hivos Free to be Me campaign and the special attention it pays to intersex people. “We are often invisible because no one talks about our situation. Especially young people experience a lot of stress and panic. A campaign like this can give them hope because it points to a light at the end of the tunnel.” Nthabiseng herself thought for a long time that she wanted to have an operation, but meeting other intersex people helped her overcome over her feelings of shame. “Nobody is shameful,” she says proudly – nobody needs to be ashamed of his or her body.