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INFERTILITY: Lamentation of stigmatisation against African women

… as “Merck More than a Mother” campaign debuts in Nigeria 

By Chioma Obinna & Ikenna Asomba

Nkemdili Okeke (not real name) is a secondary school certificate holder who got married in 2011 at the age of 25, to a wealthy businessman in the South-Eastern part of Nigeria.

Five years after marriage, she was yet to conceive. She was  subjected to dehumanising treatments by her husband’s family. Nkemdili’s mother-inlaw suddenly became a thorn in her flesh, daily raining abuses on her, calling her all sorts of names, and even accusing her of being a witch that eats up the babies in her womb. That’s not all. At other times, Nkemdili’s mother-inlaw accused her of ruining her womb.  This went on and on for years, that Nkemdili’s husband became pressurised by the mother to get a second wife for himself.

The claims were that Nkemdili was to be blamed for her inability to conceive. However, on the advice of a neighbour, Nkemdili and her husband, sought medical attention, and lo and behold, it was discovered that it had not all been Nkemdili’s fault but her husband’s, as he was diagnosed to have low sperm count.

Today, there are millions of Nigerian women suffering these forms of dehumanisation due to their inability to conceive, and in most cases, the fault is usually laid on their doorsteps, without the slightest knowledge that the men could be the cause of the problems.

A recent statistics by the World Health Organisation showed that  more than 180 million couples (1 in every 4 couples) in developing countries suffer from primary or secondary infertility.

WHO says infertility in Africa is caused by infections in over 85 percent women compared to 33 percent worldwide which emphasize the importance of prevention programmes in Africa. It’s against this backdrop that world’s foremost pharmaceutical and chemical company, Merck, launched in Nigeria, its “Merck More than a Mother” initiative aimed at combating infertility and the stigmatization associated with it in Nigeria.

The launch which took place first in Lagos and then in Abuja, brought together women leaders, policy makers, parliamentarians, academics, fertility experts among others to chart the way forward towards combating, identifying and implementing strategies to improve access to effective, safe and regulated fertility care in Nigeria and to define interventions to decrease social suffering arising from infertility and childlessness.

The mind-engaging discussion at the launch included  panelists the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Senator Lanre Tejuosho; member, Parliament of Kenya, Hon. Joyce Lay; President, Africa Fertility Society, AFS, Professor Oladapo Ashiru; former President, International Federation of Fertility Societies, IFFS, Prof. Joe Simpson, President, Nigeria Reproductive Society, Dr. Faye Iketubosin;  Head, Intercontinental Region, Merck, Yiannis Vlontzos; amond a host of others.

Experts speak

Speaking at the launch, in Lagos, Chief Social Officer, Merck, Dr. Rasha Kelej, said the “Merck More than a Mother” initiative is imperative in Africa as the consequences of infertility are much more dramatic in developing countries and can create more wide ranging social and cultural problems compared to Western societies, particularly for women.

Kelej said: “A central difficulty associated with infertility is that it can transform from an acute, private distress into a harsh, public stigma with complex and devastating consequences.

“In some cultures, childless women still suffer discrimination, stigma and ostracism. An inability to have a child or to become pregnant can result in being greatly isolated, disinherited or assaulted. This may result in divorce or physical and psychological violence.

“Through the “Merck More than a Mother” initiative, all stakeholders together including women leaders, policy makers, parliamentarians, academia, fertility experts, community and media will challenge the perception of infertile women, their roles and worth in the society, both within and beyond the medical profession in order to achieve a systemic shift in the current culture of gender discrimination in the context of fertility care in African societies and address solutions for change of mindset and upgrading the health care services.”

On his part, Senator Tejuosho affirmed that the stigmatization of women and mothers who have infertility challenges, require the much needed attention, saying. “It’s a fact that out of four Nigerian couples, we have a couple with infertility challenges. This statistics means that infertility needs urgent attention and we need to focus on how we can make health institutions accessible for infertility management.

“Most importantly, there is a lot of stigma against women with infertility challenges in Nigeria. We want to stop it. We also want to increase the advocacy against the notion that it’s only the women that suffer infertility. People must know that 50 percent of infertility issues are caused by men.”

Similarly, Infertility Advocate and Member, Kenyan Parliament, Hon. Joyce Lay disclosed that what inspired her to lead the campaign against stigmatizing women with infertility issues in Kenya and Africa was because she had a personal experience, having had difficulty having a child after she got married.

Lay said: “Lack of information as well as lack of access to better medical and healthcare services contributes largely to cases of infertility in Africa. As a member of parliament, I discover in Africa, governments commit funds in the budget for family planning programmes, but none for infertility. So, I have used this opportunity to ensure that the Kenyan government come on board to realize that infertility is a big problem and we all must be involved.”

 


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