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Women bear the brunt of infertility

social commentary with Moses Mugugunyeki

Seeing other women breastfeeding gets Tendai Zhou upset, but being ostracised by her own community, more so, by her family, is the least she expected.

While it takes two to conceive, Zhou, just like any woman in Africa, has had to bear the blame for her barren marriages.

She has always craved for children. Her wedding to her university sweetheart was out of this world, but six years down the line, Zhou has known no peace despite having a loving husband by her side and a decent job.

Zhou said she was suffering the consequences of infertility left, right and centre that even her own relatives pour scorn on her for failing to conceive.

“When my sisters visit me, they always expect things from me as they say I have no need for those things since I do not have children,” Zhou, a bank teller, said.

“They say, ‘Give us the food, why do you keep on feeding the uterus and ovaries that are not reproductive? You always look good and so does your hair since your husband takes good care of you, but if you had children he would do even better than this’.”

Fertility is treasured in African societies and women without children are made to feel personally inadequate in the context where it is the norm to refer to adults as “mother or father of so-and-so”.

Infertility is the failure to voluntarily produce live children after a period of trying. It can be primary infertility where the woman has never conceived despite cohabitation with a male partner, exposure to the possibility of pregnancy and the wish to become pregnant for 12 months; or secondary infertility,
where a woman has previously conceived but is subsequently unable to conceive despite cohabitation, exposure and wish to become pregnant for at least 12
months. If a woman keeps on having miscarriages, this is also called infertility.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), between 8% and 12% of couples around the world have difficulty in conceiving a child at some point in their
life, and in some areas that figure reaches one-third or more of couples. Infertility affects an estimated 48,5 million couples worldwide, of which 10,8
million live in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Experts say the main known or perceived causes of infertility are family planning methods and the belief in curses and witchcraft, which constitute 13,8%.
Families attach stigma to infertile women and in most instances the husband is encouraged to leave the wife.

“On several occasions, my husband was advised by his family to dump me and find a woman who can give him children,” Zhou said.

“Had it not been that my husband loves me, we would have separated a long time ago.”

While women’s fertility problems have been more fully investigated than men’s, the male factor is the cause of infertility in about 20% of infertile couples,
but it may be a contributing factor in as many as 30% to 40% of cases.

Despite these findings the social stigma of infertility weighs heavily on women who are made to shoulder much of the blame for infertile marriages.

“Our cultural beliefs are steeped in patriarchal values, which unfortunately apportion blame for this natural phenomenon on women alone. Despite scientific evidence that in some cases, the issue is on the man’s side,” said women rights activist Virginia Muwanigwa.

“Society should recognise that infertility is a natural phenomenon for which no one should be ostracised and which calls for acceptance of other ways such as

Muwanigwa said infertility fuelled gender-based violence where it is mostly blamed on women even where the problem may lie with the man.

“The frustration with infertility may result in physical and mental abuse and there have been cases of women urged to sleep with the husband’s relatives.
Divorce is one outcome that women deemed infertility may face.”
In Zimbabwe, men’s failure to reproduce is kept top secret and swept under the carpet, to the extent that a family can arrange to have a brother impregnate the

“A lot of women have been ditched by their husbands as the men are pressurised to find other women and attempt impregnating outside marriage,” said Harare
sociologist Yotamu Chirwa.

“Women bear the brunt of infertility. Women in barren relationships have been labelled witches and child eaters. They are blamed and taunted, which affects
them psychologically,” Chirwa said.

While men try to have children outside marriage, women are left at home with no choice when it comes to negotiating safe sex since the reproduction purpose
could not have been met. Infertility is a challenge for fidelity.

“After we failed to have children, my husband has been seeing other women. He claims that he has several children born out of wedlock, but I know he is lying because he is the one with the problem,” said Mary Chivasa of Chitungwiza.

Chivasa, who has been married for eight years, said in a bid to try to save her marriage, she sought help from traditional healers.

“Out of desperation, I visited a number of traditional and faith healers, but to no avail,” she said.

Culturally, couples faced by infertility have performed traditional rituals; traditional fertility enhancement which is performed under unhygienic conditions.
It often involves the cutting, scrapping and scratching of genitalia, thus the risk of HIV infection is high. This is believed to enhance fertility of the
couple and increase their chances of having a child.

Like many other Zimbabweans, Chivasa said she cannot afford medical services like in-vitro fertilisation (IVF), which in Zimbabwe is provided by a private health institution.

“We tried to enquire with this local health institution and the costs are out of this world. It costs more than US$3 500, this plus other medical costs can
reach US$5 000,” she said.

A local gynaecologist who spoke on condition of anonymity for professional reasons said most people she attended to regarding infertility issues are not into
the idea of IVF.

“When you advise patients to go for in-vitro fertilisation, they turn it down; they seem not to like the idea,” she said.

The assumption that women are the causal factor makes the voice of reason a weak weapon in trying to change narrow mind-sets where fertility is concerned. Such myopic thinking that women are solely to blame for infertility is a cause for concern. Infertility should not be seen as a woman’s problem alone and neither
should the women bear the blame.

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