Childbearing remains a vital aspect of every adult woman’s life. In African cultures, a woman that does not have a child is excluded from major cultural activities and treated as an invaluable person.
Usually, one tries to conform to the social pressure of parenthood to forestall the potential stigmatization, which is associated with infertility in this region. Infertility — also called childlessness — is a main reproductive health challenge for females and males as well.
A lot of couples experience infertility all around the world: According to the World Health Organization (WHO), over 70 million couples suffer from this condition globally, constituting 15 percent of reproductive-aged couples worldwide.
In Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), a sub-region with a cultural preference for high fertility, women are made to bear the gravest infertility consequences. In SSA, the prevalence of infertility varies from 20 – 30 percent in Nigeria; 9 percent in the Gambia; 21.2 percent in northwestern Ethiopia, and 11.8 percent among women & 15.8 percent among men in Ghana.
Furthermore, data from WHO show that in SSA, over 30 percent of women between 25 – 49 years of age experience secondary infertility, which is defined as the inability to achieve a subsequent pregnancy.
While male infertility has been discovered to be the cause of a couple’s failure to conceive in about 50 percent of cases in Africa, it is African women that shoulder the social burden disproportionately falls on women. Men are largely excluded in infertility discourse.
Understanding Infertility and Child-Bearing
The World Health Organization defines infertility clinically as “a disease of the reproductive system defined by the failure to achieve a clinical pregnancy after 12 months or more of regular unprotected sexual intercourse.”
This inability to reproduce brings about adverse implications on women, particularly in SSA, where high fertility is the norm.
In African culture, marriage is seen as meaningless if a couple fails to conceive and bear children. Africans regard their children as a source of power, of pride. Children are considered to be a potential source of support for their parents when they attain old age.
In many parts of Africa, the boy child is seen as superior to the girl child
Another important African perspective on childbearing is that it guarantees family continuity. Looking at childbearing through this lens engenders child sex preference. In most families in Africa, a male child is preferred to a female child as the boy child is regarded as the one that ensures the continuity of the family name.
Infertility is of two types: primary and secondary. Primary infertility, the inability of a woman to ever bear a child, could be perhaps due to her being unable to get pregnant or carry a pregnancy to live birth. Secondary infertility, on the other hand, is a term used to describe a condition, where a woman isn’t able to bear a child, perhaps as a result of her inability to get pregnant or bear a pregnancy to live birth after either a former pregnancy or a previous capability to carry a pregnancy to a live birth.
Infertility in Africa: Who Is to Be Blamed — Man or Woman?
In many parts of Africa, there are misconceptions about the role of the male in reproduction. Consequently, several primitive communities treat conception as exclusively a woman’s responsibility.
A large number of studies, however, have shown that infertility may be due to the woman, the man or both.
Infertility is both a social issue and a medical problem. In social contexts, it is a problem as on this continent, womanhood and manhood are predominately associated with child-bearing. This will be discussed in detail shortly.
According to medical literature, the causes of infertility affect both men and women. Today, there is growing evidence from social and medical sciences that show almost 40 – 50 percent of infertility cases are primarily associated with problems affecting men.
The causes of infertility, experts say, may be associated with male factors (40 percent), female factors (40 percent), or the combination (20 percent) of medical problems.
In spite of these data on the causes of infertility, which reveal that it affects the two sexes, African women are still at the receiving end of the worst of the blame for infertility problems. Not minding its medical origins, infertility puts African women through personal grief.
This is mainly because, in Africa’s patriarchal societies, it is the woman that is seen pregnant and nursing a child. Thus, infertility issue is mostly manifested from the African woman perspective in society.
Psychosocial Impacts of Infertility on African Women
African women, who experience infertility, suffer several psychosocial implications as African men holding sway in society excoriate these women, exonerating themselves from blame even when they are deserving of one.
The plight of the infertile woman in SSA is much worse owing to the value placed on children in this sub-region, where the infertile couples are mainly subjected to difficult marital relations that typically spawn domestic violence, divorce.
African women suffer depression and stigma due to infertility
When the African woman doesn’t conceive, she faces lots of pressures — beginning from her husband, family members, and the community. The value of the African is always placed on the basis of bearing children and providing sex to the man.
The lack of children sees the African woman ostracized for the problem, and their men look elsewhere for other women who could bear them children. This sees the African woman’s value limited only to having children for the man.
These social pressures piled on some African women due to infertility make them live a socially fractured life with enormous mental and psychological trauma. This all comes from the stigma and diminished value that comes with having no children.
Weighing on this issue, Dr. Sheryl Vanderpoel, from the Reproductive Health and Research Department at the WHO, said: “Women like me often have to bear the extra-marital relationships that our husbands tend to have. I have overheard other women talking about us as being cursed.
“The stigmatization can be extreme in some countries, where infertile people are viewed as a burden on the socioeconomic well-being of a community. Stigma extends to the wider family, including siblings, parents and in-laws, who are deeply disappointed for the loss of continuity of their family and contribution to their community. This amplifies the guilt and shame felt by the infertile individual.”
Tracing the Quagmire to Its Root Causes
Lying at the root of the disparaging and dehumanizing manner the society treats African women with childbearing difficulties is how the African man is raised. In many parts of the continent, the girl child is only for home labor, sex, and childbearing.
This can be likened to raising cattle for the express purpose of slaughter by a butcher.
For the African girl and woman, the butcher is the African man, and the meat is the African woman who must be consumed at will and at any cost. The African woman has a limited stock value placed upon her.
To combat the complex nexus of sexual violence against women and gender-based discrimination in this region, there must be an early intervention from the ground up. This brings to the fore this pertinent question: How the African man is raised?
When the African boy child is raised as a woman dominator, woman oppressor, woman controller, then we will have a young boy that grows up to become a man that will exercise the very lessons taught to him in his formative years.
He has learned to see a woman as an expendable “object” to be owned, to be controlled at will, and to be used basically for sex and childbearing.
The boy got a good example in the way he saw his father treat his mother, his uncles treat his aunties, and grandparents treat his grandmothers. How his mother, sisters, nieces, and aunties were regarded forms part of how he would treat his wife, own daughters, and female workmates as well as any woman out there in the society.
On the other part of the divide — that of the oppressed — the African woman and girl are taught to expect and respect a man’s attack. Her response must be that of submission in all areas of life, including sexual and social.
The girl is raised for a man’s consumption.
She is initiated and inducted at a young age on the expected prowess and exploits of the man. She is raised, not for independence, but dependence. In some instances, girls are told never to consider getting educated as long as they can find a wealthy man they will be good.
According to the World Economic Forum (WEF), female education has a direct effect on fertility. Researchers say more educated women may learn a variety of ideas about childbearing and desired family size through school, community as well as exposure to global communication networks.
Also, more educated women have more knowledge of prenatal care & child health. Consequently, they could have lower fertility rates due to greater confidence that their children will survive.
The African woman has no sexual and reproductive rights. This must stop for African women and girls to have a chance at excelling in life and better opportunities to contribute to Africa’s growth and development.
Let the boy child be raised responsibly in a way that gets him to respect all women. Women should not be seen as pastime chewing gums for man’s pleasure, meant to be discarded once their sweetness has faded.
The time has come for Africa to change the way the African Girl and Woman are treated!