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Why Do Women Bear the Major Burden of Infertility?

Why Do Women Bear the Major Burden of Infertility?

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As it takes two to procreate, we can start by viewing the process as a burden shared by both parties rather than one…

By Sybil Fekurumoh

Think about the last time you saw an advert for a remedy for infertility. Maybe it was a new fertility clinic that promises multiple births, a church programme for people “seeking the fruit of the womb,” or a herbal expert with the perfect mixture or concoction, “tried and tested,” that is sure to help one conceive. In more cases than none, these placements are targeted at women, and infertility is considered a women’s problem.

Many people take pride in having children. And when the child(ren) is planned for, there’s a delight in giving birth. In many societies, there are different reasons people would choose to have children: for the sake of continuity, as a moral obligation, as a milestone to be achieved, as a duty, and so on. Having children could be as statutory as upholding the tenets of a culture or religion. As we know, in heterosexual relationships, having children is a process that requires a couple (male and female), yet in many societies and cultures, the burden of childbearing is weighted on women more than it is on men. It becomes “women with infertility versus society,” and sometimes, this may result in women being at the mercy of child-seeking schemes.

Early into January, the Foundation of Journalism unfolded several fraudulent fertility clinics in south-eastern Nigeria. In these clandestine clinics, women are lured in with the promise of conceiving. These women are extorted of large amounts of money and subsequently injected with hormones that bloat their bellies and have their bodies show signs of pregnancy. These posers tell the expectant mothers that they carry “cryptic pregnancies” that only their expert eyes and machines can detect. The women are also discouraged from consulting other (actual) medical experts. But it is all a sham. On their supposed delivery dates, the women are made to believe they’ve delivered, while someone else’s child(ren) is presented to them as theirs. The women not only run the risk of organ damage from being periodically injected with hormones but also become complicit in human trafficking.

As a person living with reproductive health issues (I have written about my struggles with PCOS), I’ve also witnessed, countless times, when my symptoms are dismissed, and I am encouraged to have children quickly instead or told that I can only be helped when I am ready to have children.

Sadly, these scams are far from recent occurrences. In 2012, a High Court in the US ruled in favour of a British couple, allowing them to keep a baby that was not biologically theirs, after becoming victims of a baby-selling scam in Nigeria. The scam followed the same pattern: the woman was injected repeatedly, over a given period, and on the day of delivery, she was sedated and handed a baby afterward. The investigation of these “cryptic pregnancies” showed that in some cases, these women knowingly partook in the fraud without the knowledge of their husbands, but when we look at the fuller picture, these women are just as much victims themselves, too, of a society that stigmatises their infertility.

(Read also: Uncommon Side Effects of Pregnancy That Aren’t Often Talked About)

In one study that documented the lived experiences of infertile women in Ghana, it was found that women are subject to physical and emotional abuse, ranging from violence from spouses, insults from in-laws, co-wives (in polygamous households), and being denigrated in a social environment as being useless or incomplete. These women sometimes still take the blame for infertility, even when their spouses are the ones responsible for their childlessness.In 2018, American writer, Stephanie Auteri, shared her infertility story, where she went through a series of tests, including a hysterosalpingogram, to ascertain her fertility status. A hysterosalpingogram is a test usually recommended for women having difficulty getting pregnant, and some women find taking this test a dreadful and discomforting process. Determined to get pregnant, Auteri also undertook some lifestyle adjustments, including staying off her antidepressant. It would take months for the doctors to realise that her husband, too, had fertility problems, but as she admits, his fertility, or lack thereof, was not prioritised by the doctors to be assessed.

(Read also: With Polycystic Ovary Syndrome Largely Under-researched, African Women are Now Raising Veils)

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When we look at fiction, we can better visualise the experiences of infertile women in society. Think of the epic drama, Aníkúlápó, and how Queen Arolake is treated by her co-wives, first by the king’s other wives, then by Saro’s. In both cases, her childlessness is weaponised and used to scorn Arolake. Ayobami Adebayo’s domestic fiction, Stay with Me, vividly depicts the ordeal of Yejinde, and her predicament in trying to have children. The peddling in-laws, the pretentious co-wife, and the deceitful husband, all add to her woes as a childless woman in society.

There are several reasons the infertility stigma among women continues. First, there is the common misconception that a family’s inability to have children is most likely a result of the woman’s past indiscretions. It is believed that the woman had lived a promiscuous life in the past, subjected herself to multiple sexual partners, contracted venereal diseases, and had countless abortions that have potentially diminished her inability to conceive. In more superstitious settings, they are believed to be cursed or bewitched, or their infertility is the repercussion of past wrongdoing(s).

Infertility burden- Women

Another misconception, which is mostly targeted at women in their thirties and older, is that women can pass their prime age of being reproductive while men can continue to have children if they desire, well into old age. In reality, however, one-third of infertility cases are caused by the male, one-third by the female, and one-third by both parties or by unknown reasons. It is also interesting to know, also, that fertility rates reduce in men, too, as they grow older. The big question remains, why are women made to carry this burden alone?

As a society that encourages procreation, I can argue that the stigma toward infertile women continues because women are viewed mainly as reproductive entities, rather than whole persons. Their reproductive abilities are emphasised, and as such, their inability to do so is considered a failure. A renowned doctor in reproductive health, Dr. Mahmoud Fathalla, writes of this as the unfair burden of women in reproductive health, where women are viewed as a means to an end – procreation, rather than as ends themselves. This is why many cases of women’s reproductive health concerns are only treated or considered a concern when it affects the woman’s ability to reproduce.

There are a lot of things not yet understood about infertility, but perhaps we can re-educate ourselves in the ways that we address this problem. As it takes two to procreate, we can start by viewing the process as a burden shared by both parties rather than one. Also, for some reason, childbearing may not come easy for everyone, and it is not for lack of trying, but the inability to do so. We can learn compassion in this regard, and simply empathise rather than be overly critical.

Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.

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