The Impact of Infertility on families

“I cannot wait to hold a baby in my arms,” these heartfelt words came from a tearful Linda Hiaduwa a 36-year-old health assistant in Nambia as she described her struggled with infertility for over 10 years.

She was speaking at a recent Merck Health Media Training held in Nairobi. The “Merck More Than a Mother” initiative aims to empower infertile women through access to information, education and health and by changing mind-sets. This powerful initiative supports governments in defining policies to enhance access to regulated, safe and effective fertility care.

Linda appealed to the media to help educate people on infertility and lobby governments to make fertility treatments affordable like they did for HIV/Aids treatment years ago.

Linda’s case is one of three that were shared during the one-day training. The other two cases presented via video, told the shocking tale of Jackline Mwende whose ex-husband, attacked her with a machete, slashing her face and hacking off her hands because she hadn’t conceived after nearly five years of marriage.

Another couple from Uganda shared their own struggle to conceive and the social stigma that came with it.

“In our country, society equates married women who can’t give birth to be those in the family who are only there to eat food and fill toilets,” said one Ugandan journalist after the presentation, paying credence to the discrimination, stigma and ostracism childless women continue to suffer.

According to World Organization data, more than 180 million couple in developing countries suffer from primary or secondary infertility. Primary infertility refers to couples who have not become pregnant after at least one year of having sex without using birth control, while secondary fertility is the failure to conceive after an initial first pregnancy.

A study on The socioeconomic impact of infertility on women in developing countries, identified that infertility as a disease is not characterized by mortality but rather by the morbidity it inflicts on the individual and the couple. This morbidity includes social, economic, relationship and psychological aspects but is not confined to these.

Even though male infertility has been found to be the cause, or contributing factor of a couple’s failure to conceive in up to 50% of the cases, infertility is almost always assumed to be a women’s problem.

It highlighted reasons why children are important especially in Africa and Asia as they; collectively allow their parents, especially their mothers, to become more esteemed members of the family and community. Children are also considered a reliable source of manpower in many rural and developing areas and provide economic security in old age.

The study then highlighted a number of consequences that result from the social stigma of childlessness. They include:

Personal grief and suffering – the psychological toll of infertility on affected couples is said to be similar to those grieving any significant loss and many of them experience shock, grief, depression, anger, and frustration, as well as loss of self-esteem and a feeling of no control over one's destiny.

Instability in a marriage- that might result in the possibility of divorce or abandonment, with consequent loss of financial security especially for the women who are dependent on their partners. In addition, it could result in more economic hardship if women have to pay back their bride wealth or pay bride wealth for husbands to enter into new unions

Negative attitudes- Certain customary laws and cultural traditions lead to negative attitudes to infertile women and may potentiate the scourge of gender inequality or violence.

Social inequalities- These are reinforced when infertile women are treated as social servants by tending to the sick and infirm or caring for the children of others. Also in most cases infertile women may not be allowed to inherit or continue living in their husband’s compound after he dies.

The situation is further compounded by the fact that most couples or individuals are afraid of seeking medical treatment and modern fertility care. Also there is the issue of the cost of these assisted reproductive techniques such as IUI and IVF. They are either very costly or unavailable.