Infertility: The Taboo Subject

Leonida Odongo
Posted April 13, 2021 from Kenya

Infertility affects millions of people of reproductive age worldwide and has an impact on their families and communities. Estimates suggest that between 48 million couples and 186 million individuals live with infertility globally.[1] Childlessness is the state of being without an offspring. It results from infertility/impotence of either of the couples. It is the expectation of every couple to reproduce. When they do so it becomes a sign of fecundity. Freedman (1968, p.371) defines fecundity as: “the capacity for reproduction while fertility as the actual reproduction”. Fecundity is actualised in giving birth. According to Banzikiza (1985), fecundity is broader in meaning than fertility[2]

In African context, children mean a lot. They are a continuity to a family’s lineage , they are believed to be the future , they are supporters in old age , they help contribute to family labour and in some cases family income .Infertility affects both males and females .In the male reproductive system, infertility is most commonly caused by problems in the ejection of semen , absence or low levels of sperm, or abnormal shape (morphology) and movement (motility) of the sperm whereas in the in the female reproductive system, infertility may be caused by a range of abnormalities of the ovaries, uterus, fallopian tubes, and the endocrine system, among others[3].

Infertility can be primary or secondary. Primary infertility is when a pregnancy has never been achieved by a person, and secondary infertility is when at least one prior pregnancy has been achieved[4].Women who have never had children are treated harshly by society that the one who has at least had a child. Sometime they get mocked and asked “where is your baby” sometimes they are told “all women your age have children”. This is echoed by Morell (1994) who explains that motherhood is celebrate while childlessness is viewed as a sorry state.[5] In as much as children are highly appreciated, in some parts of the world some people choose to be childless. Morell (1994) calls this voluntary or intentional childlessness. However, this could be due to some socio-economic factors as some people perceive children as burdensome and too expensive to take care of. Some look at children as a disturbance to their marriage and peace, whereas some make decisions not to have children because of building a career.

Infertility is an issue that is never discussed in many African homes, it is considered a taboo subject especially if it is the husband who is infertile. In Africa men do not accept that they are infertile or have infertility problems, more often it is the women who get blamed even if she is healthy. When wives in a family with infertility problems go to hospital and are confirmed to be healthy, the husband will not accept to go for fertility tests with her. In Africa it is assumed that every man is fertile and can father children. There are very few support systems if any for childless mothers, many prefer to suffer in silence, being consoled by the tears that drop on their pillows every day of their marriage life. Even opening up to infertility issue is a heavy burden for many women because, whatever the case, society will always judge them.

When a couple remains childless although they are fertile, they are deemed selfish, self-oriented, and workaholic. They are assumed to dislike children, and only to want a comfortable life without any responsibility[6].It is the norm in many families after wedding, relatives start counting when the couple will invite them for baby shower, meaning when will the woman given birth, after 9 months, curious eyes and questions befall the couple, especially the wife.

Childlessness has resulted into families breaking up and in some instances it has been responsible for conflicts between husband and wife. Sometimes friends to a husband even suggest that he gets a second wife or chase away the first wife because childlessness is deemed an embarrassment in many communities and highly stigmatised. Mbiti (1969) echoes that argues that for an African to die without getting married and without children is to be completely cut off from the human society, to become disconnected, to become an outcast and to lose all links with humankind. Marriage and sex were held sacred because the future of the community depended on them. This explains why there were many taboos attached to marriage and sex. Some women even get pushed into having extra-marital affairs to save face when their husband cannot father and end up having children to save their marriages, why because of how society treats harshly, women who are childless.

In many African settings, there are derogatory statements for childless women and men who do not get married for example an infertile person is called buoch among the Luo community which loosely translates to being stunted or unproductive. Many communities view childlessness as interference with the flow of life, as noted by Ochieng[7] if a couple is childless, they consult a diviner and tradition allows for polygamous marriage in case the first wife is unable to give birth. Sometimes in laws pressure newly marriage women to give birth, a mother in law would keep asking her daughter in law, when will you name me whereas the father- in -law pressures the daughter-in- law by asking when is she going to name a child after him. No questions are directed to males because they are assumed to be fertile and the burden of proving fertility falls squarely on a women’s shoulder and not a man. Furthermore, many communities associate barrenness with evil. Childless women are treated badly with some communities labelling them as not being fully developed. In Africa, couples who decide not to have children are deemed as selfish and often asked “Who will take care of you when you grow old?”.  Women even lose their own identity and have to be identified through their children. If your child’s name is Onyango or Otieno for example among the Luo community, your name will change from Margaret to min Otieno meaning mother to Otieno, among the Agikuyu community, you are named nyina wa Njoki meaning mother to Njoki and among the coastal communities mothers are named Mama.

Fertility and the weight associated with child bearing is responsible for the growing syndicate of child stealing in many parts of Africa. There are often complaints of children being stolen in maternity hospitals.[8] Sometimes it is the childless mother herself who is responsible for the stealing while other times the theft is done by a syndicate and the child delivered to the would be ‘owner’. These children are sold for as little as $400[9] , imagine a human being sold at $400 having been stolen from their mother and family?. Sometimes the stealing is done by people familiar to the new mothers sometimes it is done by strangers who pretend to be good Samaritans helping carry the new baby. For couples who lose their babies through theft at birth, the loss is often a lifelong experience of anguish and anxiety. For example, as the case of the Kimundi[10] family, reported on the Standard, whose new born son was stolen 52 years ago The family is still in pain to date.

In some instances, when a mother’s child dies at delivery, there are attempts to swap the dead child with another baby within the maternity because society looks down upon women who have not borne children. Death of a child further puts pressure on new moms reinforcing the urgency to get another child as soon as possible.

Childless women also go through verbal abuse even by fellow women. Being without a child makes women be accorded a lower status in many African communities. Motherhood continues to define an individual woman’s treatment in her community, her self-respect, and her understanding of womanhood.[11] Since a wife has no residence rights in her husband’s house after his death, except through her son, not having a son means not having a rightful place as an older person. Many childless widows return to their paternal compound, but live in marginal conditions[12]. Sadly, infertility stigma even extends to a woman’s death[13] with different rituals accorded to married women with children while those without children are accorded less respect even at burial.

For example, within the Luo community of Kenya, childbearing is an obligation that must be fulfilled by every couple; when this is not met, the couple faces several challenges. This is due to the importance the Luo community accord to children. Children ensure the continuity of the lineage, and they ensure the immortality of the dead parents, among others[14]. Luo childless women face a number of challenges such as alienation, stigmatisation, and ridicule, among others. These challenges affect their lives within the families and in the entire community[15].

The stigma of childlessness has become more intense with the celebrations of baby showers and sharing of gifts to would be moms. It becomes a constant reminder to the childless mothers of their empty arms especially if they too get invited to these baby showers.

Society needs to change the existing attitude towards childless women, they too are human beings and feel the pain of ridicule.

Cover Photo credit @https://www.mom365.com/baby-names/african-girls-names

[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infertility

[2]https://repository.maseno.ac.ke/bitstream/handle/123456789/971/EPHRAIM%2...

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/life/woman-arrested-for-attempted-child...

[9] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54986993

[10] https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/thestandard/2001273587/sna...

[11] https://news.brown.edu/articles/2009/04/infertility

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] https://journals.eanso.org/index.php/eajtcr/article/view/147

[15] ibid

[1] https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/infertility

[2]https://repository.maseno.ac.ke/bitstream/handle/123456789/971/EPHRAIM%2...

[3] ibid

[4] ibid

[5] ibid

[6] ibid

[7] ibid

[8] https://nairobinews.nation.co.ke/life/woman-arrested-for-attempted-child...

[9] https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-54986993

[10] https://www.standardmedia.co.ke/entertainment/thestandard/2001273587/sna...

[11] https://news.brown.edu/articles/2009/04/infertility

[12] ibid

[13] ibid

[14] https://journals.eanso.org/index.php/eajtcr/article/view/147

[15] ibid

This story was submitted in response to Gender-Based Violence.

Comments 3

Log in or register to post comments
Jill Langhus
Apr 14
Apr 14

Hi Leonida,

How are you doing, dear? Thanks for sharing your informative article. This is sad, and doesn't help overpopulation or the feelings of the women, or men, that want to be parents for that matter. I think even in the U.S. there are stigmas against women that don't have children. It may be more subtle, but it's there. It seems like, in general, people wonder what's wrong with you if you don't have, or don't want children...heaven forbid. These harmful norms and stigmas need to change globally, as far as I'm concerned.

Hope you're well, dear, and that you have a good, rest of your week.

Leonida Odongo
Apr 14
Apr 14

Dear Jill,

It was quite a sad process putting this piece together.I agree with you that things need to change .

Thank you and have a great week too.

Best

Leonida

Jill Langhus
Apr 16
Apr 16

Hello there:-)

You're welcome, dear. Thanks! XX