The life path of Grace Kambini took an unexpected twist. It all began when, even after nine years of marriage, she found herself without a child.
In the wake of this situation, her husband and his family subjected her to a harsh ordeal. She endured insults and went without food for weeks on end.
Kambini endured because she had no place to go; she was an orphan and had no living maternal relatives.
“Every time I remember his insult or talk about it, I feel faint and out of breath. Due to the stress I endured, I suffered hypertension and diabetes; now my life is about injecting insulin day and night,” Kambini said.
In no time, her husband of 10 years divorced her. Kambini started living alone with no one to support her.
Like Kambini, Mrs Offiong was married for six years and was unable to bear a child. The first two years of their marriage were peaceful, and then the complaints started. According to Offiong, it got bad when her husband’s younger sister gave birth a year after getting married.
“Things grew from bad to worse when my mother-in-law began to verbally and emotionally abuse me. My husband was told not to bring me for family events as questions surrounding my infertility would be brought up and discussed,” she recounted.
Offiong said that she and her husband were not financially buoyant to explore options such as the IVF method. Her husband was also not open to adopting any child.
Offiong recounted her most painful memory. Her mother-in-law had called her a barren woman in front of her husband’s guests.
“I wanted the ground to open up and swallow me. I had never felt so ashamed in my entire life. My husbands’ guests were in shock as silence filled the room, and tears began to roll down my cheeks.”
Her marriage ended when her mother-in-law told her son to take another wife. In the mother-in-law’s words, it was to cover the shame she (Offiong) had brought to the family.
However, in a twist of fate, Mrs Offiong conceived a son after getting intimate in a different relationship.
Kambini and Offiong’s plight is some of the challenges most women who have not conceived in their marriages face- constantly being abused and living an unhappy life.
Barren women, not barren men
Infertility is a global health issue affecting millions of people of reproductive age. As per the World Health Organization (WHO), infertility is characterized as a condition affecting the male or female reproductive system, marked by the inability to achieve pregnancy after engaging in regular unprotected sexual intercourse for a period of 12 months or longer.
Despite the prevalence of infertility in the continent, infertility tends to be framed as a women's health concern and a condition that only affects them.
This social stigma originates from a deeply entrenched cultural belief that perceives a woman's primary role as that of a child bearer, responsible for perpetuating the family lineage by bearing children.
Also, religion plays a role in this. Many religious traditions emphasise procreation as a sacred duty and a means of fulfilling divine mandates. Some religious texts also teach fertility as a sign of divine blessing and infertility as a sign of divine punishment, further deepening the stigma associated with being unable to conceive.
Women who don’t meet this expectation face isolation, discrimination, and insults from family and husbands. These societal pressures can lead to low-self esteem, a feeling of shame and health challenges, such as hypertension.
While most of society seems to assume that only women are responsible for the inability of couples to have children, studies have shown that men contribute to infertility in their marriages.
In fact, Gabriel Akilo, a gynaecologist, held that there are more men responsible for infertility than women. “Before now, we used to say that 40 to 60% of infertility is due to female factor while 40% due to male, but recently, we found out that there has been a sharp increase in the prevalence among men; more men are presenting with the constant factor being the cause of infertility than women, and the reasons are many,” he told FertilityHub Nigeria.
Men suffer from low sperm production, abnormal sperm function or blockages, illnesses, injuries and other factors which can contribute to male infertility.
Also, society’s belief that men cannot be barren has also hindered their ability to seek help.
“commonly in our environment, it may not even be that it is the woman that is having a problem, it may be the man, but you would find it difficult to convince men to go for test because they believe that once the man can perform sexually, he is alright. There is even a quote in Yoruba that men can never be barren. But by the time you subject the man to investigation, you will find out that the reason for the infertility is the male factor,” Gabriel Omonaiye, a medical practitioner, said.
To end the stigmatisation of women perceived as barren, there is a need to provide accurate information about the diverse causes of infertility and highlight that it can affect both men and women; these campaigns can challenge stereotypes and reduce the blame placed solely on women.
There is also a need to promote open dialogue and create safe spaces for individuals to share their experiences that can foster empathy and understanding. By encouraging conversations around infertility, societies can create a more supportive environment where individuals struggling with fertility challenges feel less isolated and stigmatised.
Media, including television, films, and literature, can also play a role in portraying infertility in a realistic and sensitive manner, helping to reshape public perceptions.
Collaboration between medical professionals, religious leaders, and community organisations is essential. Religious teachings can be reframed to emphasise compassion and support for individuals facing infertility rather than promoting judgment or exclusion.
Healthcare systems should offer accessible and comprehensive reproductive healthcare for both men and women, addressing infertility's physical and emotional aspects. Policies and laws can also be developed to protect the rights of individuals struggling with fertility issues, ensuring that they are not discriminated against in areas such as employment, marriage, or adoption. Ultimately, ending the stigma against women perceived as barren requires a collective effort to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and foster a more inclusive and understanding society.
Until this is done, men should know that they, too, can be barren.