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INFERTILITY: Stakeholders seek ways to combat stigmatisation against African women

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

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-East Nigeria.

From Left: Prof Oladapo, Presidient African Fertility Society; Victoria Kuba (Beneficiary); Helen Philip (Beneficiary); Dr Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare; Chinelo Azodo (Beneficiary); Hon Joyce Lay, Member of the Parliament, Kenya and Senator Lanre Tejuoso, Chairman Senate Committee on Health Nigeria, during the "Merck More than a Mother" launch in Nigeria, at the Oriental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos.
From Left: Prof Oladapo, Presidient African Fertility Society; Victoria Kuba (Beneficiary); Helen Philip (Beneficiary); Dr Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer, Merck Healthcare; Chinelo Azodo (Beneficiary); Hon Joyce Lay, Member of the Parliament, Kenya and Senator Lanre Tejuoso, Chairman Senate Committee on Health Nigeria, during the “Merck More than a Mother” launch in Nigeria, at the Oriental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos.

Five years after marriage, she was yet to conceive and had been subjected to dehumanising treatments by her husband’s family.

Particularly, Nkemdili’s mother-inlaw had become 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 accuses her of ruining her womb, saying she had been into prostitution and has destroyed her womb through incessant abortions.

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 a watery and low sperm count, thus suffering from infertility.

There are millions of Nigerian women suffering these forms of dehumanisation, for 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.

Even, a recent statistics by the World Health Organisation, WHO says more than 180 million couples (one in every four couples) in developing countries suffer from primary or secondary infertility.

WHO says infertility in Africa is caused by infections in over 85 per cent women compared to 33 per cent worldwide which emphasize the importance of prevention programmes in Africa.

It’s against this backdrop that world’s foremost pharmaceutical and chemical company, Merck, has 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 saw as panelists the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Sen. 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 and President, Nigeria Reproductive Society, Dr. Faye Iketubosin.

Others were the Head, Intercontinental Region, Merck, Yiannis Vlontzos; President, North and West Africa, Merck, Dr. Karim Bendaou; Chief Social Officer, Merck, Dr. Rasha Kelej; Commissioner for Health, Ogun State, Dr. Tunde Ipaye; President, SOGON, Prof. Brian Adinma; Secretary-General, SOGON, Dr. Chris Agboghoroma and President, IFFS, Dr. Richard Kennedy.

Also, at the launch were Chairman, Garki General Hospital and Vice Chairman, Nisa Fertility Hospital, Dr. Ibrahim Wada; Vice President, Africa Fertility Society, Dr. James Olobo-Lalobo among others.

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.

According to Kelej, “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, the Chairman, Senate Committee on Health, Sen. Lanre 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. We want to let the men to have the courage and also they must come out together with their wives, to seek treatment and to ensure that the focus on women must be directed accordingly, and not a misplaced direction. So, it’s more about awareness and education.”

Tejuosho added that there is plan by the current administration at the centre to build over 10,000 primary health centers across the country, noting that it will make primary healthcare accessible to Nigerians.

“Again, as legislators, we will ensure that enough fund is captured in the budget to provide adequate facilities for these primary healthcare centres,” he assured.

This is even as he added that “currently, there is an introduction in the National Assembly, an Assisted Reproduction Technology Bill, to ensure the law guiding technology of IVF, as well as fertility intervention and surrogacy is well guarded, so that the owner of the sperm or the womb will be the father or mother of the child and not the surrogate mother.”

Tejuosho stated that there are also many other laws coming up that will tackle the issues of inheritance for mothers that are childless or have just females as children.

Panelists at the "Merck More than a Mother" launch in Nigeria, at the Oriental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos.
Panelists at the “Merck More than a Mother” launch in Nigeria, at the Oriental Hotel, Victoria Island, Lagos.

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: “I had difficulty having a child after I got married, the reasons are because I had complications earlier. I was pregnant at an early stage, and going to give birth in hospitals not equipped resulted to child birth complications for me. Later on. I developed problems with my Fallopian tube and had to undergo surgery. Later on, I had more complications which led to heavy bleedings and closure of my cervix. This led to another surgery of removing my womb.

“I couldn’t carry my child myself, so, when I got the opportunity to get to the Kenyan parliament, I started advocating for at least education, creating awareness, prevention and getting treatment for infections. This is because most men and women with infertility issues, are caused by untreated infectious diseases. May be because they are not aware or they are ignorant to go for medical check-up.

“So, lack of information, as well as lack of access to better medical and healthcare services contribute 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.”

Meanwhile, as part of its efforts to take the advocacy message across the country, Merck has also partnered with Future Assured, the pet-project of wife of Senate President, Toyin Saraki.

Recall that the “Merck More than a Mother” campaign had successfully been launched in Kenya, Uganda, among other sub-Saharan African countries.


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