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Infertility stigma for African women

In many cultures, childless women suffer discrimination, stigma and ostracism. For example, Ann, my client was banned from attending her father-in-law’s funeral.

Kenya is one of the countries in the “African infertility belt” that stretches across central Africa from the United Republic of Tanzania in the east to Gabon in the west. In this region a phenomenon described as “barrenness amid plenty” refers to the fact that infertility is often most prevalent where fertility rates are also high.

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. The cultural misconceptions and emotional burden especially for the women is often unbearable.

Infertility is a global problem particularly in the developing countries. It is estimated that one in three couples is affected in countries within central Africa according to a report. Infertility is common in gynecological clinic consultations in Kenya. The African society places passionate premium on procreation in any family setting. The woman's place in marriage remains precarious till confirmed through child bearing. In the society, a woman has to prove her womanhood through motherhood. The man also has to confirm his manhood in same fashion. Children are held as sources of pride, strength and economic fortune for the family, a man's wealth and strength being equated to his progeny. Infertility therefore entails a loss of something even though previously inexistent is thought to be tangible and therefore impacts negatively on a couple's mental and social wellbeing.

Infertility constitutes a crisis in the affected African family. The attendant emotional, psychological, cultural and social burdens drain the couple of self-belief and esteem. The unsolicited and often inpatient societal demands and expectations place on such couples unimaginable pressure and tension. They may become isolated and neglected consequent upon the attendant social stigmatization

When a couple is unable to reproduce, the man may divorce his wife or take another wife if they live in a culture that permits polygamy further worsening the problem

Illiteracy is rife in most communities in some affected regions. Medical knowledge is abysmal. Diseases and disease processes are interpreted variously to suit the different fora and situations. Many notions exist as to the root cause of infertility. Taken generally, the female is held responsible for virtually all cases of infertility. The men folk are held as above board. Consequent upon this, the woman is humiliated isolated, derided, abused and rebuffed. Undergoing such life crisis has been the stories of most infertile women in Africa. They go to varying lengths visiting orthodox medical practitioners, herbalists, traditionalists and spiritualists in search of needed reprieve and solution. Such women need to worry leas as assisted reproductive technologies are becoming available, accessible, acceptable and affordable

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