Women bear brunt of infertility stigma

Tafadzwa Mwanengureni / Regina Pasipanodya

IT’S been five years since Priscilla Matanhire from Musana in Bindura got married, but the marriage took a twist barely two years into the union, when her mother-in-law started taunting her for failing to conceive.

She made clear that she was desperate to have a grandchild.

“She labelled me as a broiler that was brought to eat only and never to conceive babies,” Matanhire said.

“My mother-in-law told my husband about the prophecies she got from several prophets whom she consulted. Their message was that l will never have children. Last year l had a miscarriage, but she told me that it makes no difference because l didn’t give birth.”

Matanhire is among many women facing discrimination and stigma in societies because childlessness.

In many African societies, women are the only ones blamed for infertility, exposing them to all forms of abuse. It does not matter that in some cases it is men who are actually infertile – the blame falls first on woman.

In many circumstances, some men have extra-marital affairs or other marriages, only to find out that they are the ones who are not fertile.

Margret Gondiwa (28) from Guruve spent less than three years in marriage, before noticing a marked change in her husband’s behavior.

“My ex-husband would spend a week at his aunt’s house, but l later discovered that he was having an affair with a single mother,” she recalls.

“Other relatives would confront me and tell me straight up that he wants a child and he can’t stay with a woman who cannot bear children for him. The affair was justifiable in their eyes.”

Gondiwa got married in October 2018 and separated with her husband in 2020.

At one time she was diagnosed with syphilis because of her husband’s affairs.

In the case of Matanhire and Gondiwa, experts say they experienced social rejection before they even reached the epidemiological definition of infertility which is two years.

Dr Mugove Madziyire, Program Coordinator Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Zimbabwe said men are also responsible for fertility failure.

“Male factors have largely been ignored but they contribute up to 30% of causes according to a study we did in 2020,” he said.

“Substance abuse affect both male and female fertility by affecting sexual potency and gamete quality.”

In an effort to overcome helplessness, a number of women are seeking help from indigenous practitioners since it is culturally believed that infertility is associated with supernatural and spiritual forces.

Infertile women, in some societies, are believed to bring bad omen in marriages.

Karen Mukwasi, Director for Pada Platform, a movement that advocates for the rights of women said there is a need for comprehensive sexuality education, adding resources should be committed to educating people on infertility issues.

“There is need for society to understand that fertility is neither a cultural or social issue but rather a health issue. Government policies could mitigate the problems faced by women by making fertility care more accessible,” said Mukwasi.

However, due to economic challenges in the country, fertility care is largely inaccessible and a large number of childless couples cannot afford to go for high-tech operations or Assisted Reproductive Technology to help infertile women get pregnant or surrogacy.

For instance, the vitro fertilization (IVF) process ranges from US$3 500 to US$7 500 in Zimbabwe. The majority of Zimbabweans survive on hand to mouth.

Zimbabwe Fertility Promotion Centre chairperson, Godknows Mabuwa noted with concern that many infertile women continue to suffer stigma, while also failing to afford treatment.

“It is miserable that the medical avenue is expensive and many people die childless because they cannot afford the expenses,” he said.

“Stigmatisation of infertile women is a painful thorn in our flesh because they are experiencing it in their marriages, churches, work places and educational institutions

” Women try by all means not to divulge secrets of their marriages to an extent that they suffer psychologically for the rest of their life”

Provision of infertility treatment is a complex issue that is given less prominence in the country’s public health institutions.

Instead, much attention on sexual reproductive health is placed on family planning, maternal health and HIV among others.

To some indigenous treatment on infertility is effective but as for Matanhire, it has failed.

Dr Madziyire said the effectiveness of indigenous treatment is largely unanswered.

“There has been secrecy on herbs and other traditional approaches used to address infertility”.

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