Marriage ceremonies in Nigeria are celebrated with lot of fanfare. Relatives gather and rejoice with the new bride who is a symbol of fertility in the home.
Upon conclusion of marriage rites, the elderly in the family begin to anticipate that within the next couple of months, the bride will be holding a baby in her arms.
The marriage celebrations would have barely ended, and the in-laws are already daydreaming and anticipating the baby’s gender and the names they will give to their grandchild. Every day, people in the homestead expect to see a bulging belly; at times they speak with their eyes, staring at the daughter-in-law’s tummy.
While motherhood is a thing of joy, it could also be a source of sadness to many households, when the children are not forthcoming.
Despite the fact that the number of children a woman of reproductive age bears has been declining globally, childbearing expectations in Nigeria remain very high.
Having a child no doubt provides a sense of emotional fulfillment and social status, and can contribute to the household economy by helping with domestic and subsistence activities. As parents age, children become an important source of old age support. However, in recent years in Nigeria, it has become a source of pain and untold hardship for women having difficulty to enjoy the joy of motherhood.
As a result of the high value of children, the social consequences of infertility can be severe.
Infertility in women often comes with stigma, mental distress, and potential exposure to domestic violence. When members of the community sees that a woman isn’t pregnant after an expected period of time, rumours of infertility may begin.
Sadly, few days back, a woman, Lovina Odo, 38, committed suicide at her residence in Umusiome village, Nkpor-agu near Onitsha, Anambra State, Nigeria. The deceased, a petty trader hung herself with rope tied to a ceiling fan.
According to reports in the media the deceased was believed to have committed suicide over her inability to bear a child after eight years of marriage.
Research shows about one in five couples in Nigeria have difficulty conceiving or carrying a pregnancy to term. Previous research has shown that women often report feeling depressed, and their relationship at risk due to their infertility. The considerable pressure women are under to have children is cited as a key reason.
The Patriarchal Nature of Society
In African Culture, it is a taboo to point out that a man has failed in the bedroom.
In reality, we have countless numbers of men who are sterile but it is shocking how they plainly and unashamedly refuse to be labeled ‘infertile’. The other challenge is that most men marry for the sole reason of childbearing because they want to leave an heir when they die.
A big problem arises when there is infertility in the home. A man will not give up until he proves that it is the woman who is barren. Also, a man would never want his ego to be ruined because everyone will laugh at him. So, he may be forced to father a child by any means necessary just to prove to his parents and friends that he has not failed.
These days, a very small number of men would accept their infertility, due to modern medical understanding, but a very significant number would not.
Infertility and social pressure
A study carried out by Jasmine Fledder johann a Lecturer in Sociology and Social Work, Lancaster University on the effect of infertility found that a woman’s ability to conceive has a powerful effect on whether the relationship with her partner will survive. Women who had difficulties conceiving faced a much greater risk of their relationships ending.
Interestingly, this was only the case when I looked at self-reported infertility. Biomedical infertility was not linked to a greater risk of the relationship ending.
Her study further revealed that only women who perceived themselves to have difficulties conceiving were at greater risk of a breakup, regardless of their physiological ability to conceive. Where relationship stability is concerned, perceptions matter.
She also investigated whether the risk of a breakup differed between married women compared with those in non-marital sexual unions. This was particularly important because previous work has tended to focus on married women.
“Women in non-marital unions were at greater risk of the relationship ending compared to married women. This is consistent with the idea that unmarried women have fewer legal protections, contributing to a less stable relationship.”
What can be done?
A combination of scaled-up diagnosis and treatment options, targeted attempts to reduce stigma, and a diversified picture of family life are needed.
Wider availability of diagnosis and assisted reproductive technologies may help some couples meet their fertility desires.
These technologies are costly, however, and tend not to be widely available. This makes them the preserve of wealthier couples living in urban areas.
Scaling up biomedical interventions could therefore potentially contribute to the stratification of reproduction. In turn, this could actually increase stigma for those who continue to be unable to access such services.
This solution also misses the point that perceived infertility seems to be what matters most for relationship stability.
A biomedical intervention is therefore unlikely to be sufficient on its own.
From a social perspective, stigmatization of infertile women must be reduced. One possible option would be to strengthen social welfare and old age support systems. This would reduce the economic pressure on couples that struggle to have children.
More broadly, a concerted effort is needed to redefine the family to include childless couples. This might, for example, take the form of public campaigns to highlight the diversity of family life in Nigeria.
These interventions have the potential to reduce the social stigma for childless women, and to contribute to the stability of romantic relationships.