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Africa joins hands to erase infertility stigma

Fertility is prized in African societies and couples 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”.

social commentary…with Moses Mugugunyeki

According to the World Health Organisation [WHO], infertility affects up to 15% of reproductive-aged couples worldwide.

Demographic studies by the global health body show that from 2004 in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30% of women aged 25-49 suffer from secondary infertility, the failure to conceive after an initial first pregnancy.

Experts say at least one in every four Zimbabwean women of childbearing age suffers from some degree of infertility.

Nomatter Dzivakwi [not her real name] said she almost killed herself as she could not stand the heat for failing to conceive.

She is among millions of people globally, who suffer at the hands of stigmatisation because of being infertile.

“Had it not been for the counselling and the prayers I got from my pastor, I would have committed suicide,” Dzivakwi said.

“I could not face it anymore, but the pastor assured me that I was still young and could conceive. He gave reference to the story of Abraham and Sarah and encouraged me to see a specialist.”

After years of trying, Dzivakwi conceived and gave birth to a baby boy.

“I called him Simbarashe [God’s power] because I felt there was the hand of the Almighty in all this considering it took me eight years to have a baby of my own,” she said.

While the burden of infertility weighs heavily on women, Dzivakwi said her husband could not bear the consequences of barrenness to a point that he mulled at relocating to another city.

“My husband wanted us to leave Harare to go and stay in Bulawayo, saying it was better to live among strangers, who do not know about your background. He said even her close friends and relatives poured scorn on him for being infertile,” said Dzivakwi.

Dzivakwi said infertility stigma persists and weighs heavily on women.

Various studies suggest that there is greater stigma for infertile women than men and in developing countries the infertile women experience the negative consequences of childlessness to a greater degree.

In many African countries stigmatisation is also an important reason for divorce with reports that more than 50% of infertile women in sub-Saharan feel stigmatised.

It is against this backdrop that Merck Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany, has come with a cocktail of strategies meant to erase infertility stigma in Africa and one such intervention is the Merck Foundation More than a Mother, Father initiative.

To create awareness on infertility stigma and support girl education among other health care issues, Merck Foundation convened the eighth Edition of Africa Asia Luminary last week, which was virtually attended by more than 120 000 participants, healthcare providers, policymakers and academia from 70 countries.

A Merck Foundation Health media training was also held on the sidelines of the luminary and drew more than 1 500 African and Latin American journalists from more than 35 countries. The media training was addressed by fertility experts from across Africa.

Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation and president of Merck More than a Mother, said the Africa Asia Luminary Inauguration & Africa’s First Ladies High Level Panel was part of her organisation’s quest to break the fertility stigma, support girl education ameliorate healthcare in Africa.

“Together, we will discuss our strategy to build healthcare capacity and establish a strong platform of specialised trained medical experts to define interventions to break infertility stigma and support girl education,” Dr Kelej said.

She said apart from the media training, Merck Foundation introduced media awards meant to motivate media professionals to showcase their work to raise awareness about infertility prevention and breaking infertility stigma in our beautiful continent.

“I strongly believe in the important role of media to address sensitive issues such as infertility and influence our societies to break the stigma of infertility and infertile women in Africa,”  Kelej said.

In his keynote address at the Africa Asia Luminary, Zambian President Edgar Chagwa Lungu hailed the Merck Foundation initiative, saying it would a go a long way in improving the healthcare on the continent.

“I am very glad to be hosting this important conference together with Merck Foundation, our long-term strategic partner. It is a great honour to inaugurate the conference alongside the First Ladies of Africa,” Lungu said.

“I am certain that this conference will help us to further explore partnership opportunities and introduce new frameworks for cooperation in the area of health care capacity building and to define interventions to break infertility stigma and support girl education.”

Kenyan gynaecologist Wanjiru Ndengwa pointed out the need to raise awareness on infertility among communities.

“There is need to educate at all levels in order to overcome infertility stigma. People need information from rural areas to cities. You need to understand when it is important to see a fertility specialist,” Ndengwa said.

“Integration of women and girls in sexual and reproductive health programmes is also key. Women and girls need to be empowered, they need the knowledge. ”

Ndengwa said media play an important role in sensitising communities, hence its crucial function in breaking infertility stigma.

She said reducing the stigma of couples, who cannot conceive was equal to removing violence against women.

Dzivakwi lived with shame and was ridiculed because she could not conceive.

However, she managed to stand in the face of stigma and finally got a child of her own.

The 33-year-old is expecting her second child soon.

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