By Sheila Waswa with Ogova Ondego
December 16, 2016
Is a woman only worth the children she bears?
To what extent would you go to get a baby?
As far as it takes me.
This hypothetical conversation states the status of the barren woman across sub-Saharan or black Africa where a woman is either a mother or nothing.
“Our culture demands that, for a woman to be socially acceptable, she should have at least one biological child,” says Rita Sembuya, the Joyce Fertility Support Centre in Uganda. “Almost all cultures across Africa put emphasis on women having children; marriage without children is considered as a failure of the two individuals”
Ivorian Nina Steele, founder of nonparents.com that helps people to share their stories on barrenness, explains that the stigma attached to being childless in Africa is far greater than in the West because “African countries place a very high value on their faith and hence children are seen as a gift from God.”
Indeed David Orondo, a lecturer in Communication Department of Daystar University in Kenya, says that to be barren in his Luo community is to ‘inhibit’ the ‘life force’ of the community and hence a barren woman is viewed with contempt.
And what is such a woman expected to do?
Bahati Bukuku, a leading Kiswahili Gospel musician from Tanzania has the answer in her popular song, Maamuzi (Choices or Decision): Childless Tundo, out of desperation to salvage her breaking marriage and regain respect from her in-laws, seeks the help of a witchdoctor from Congo in Central Africa. She conceives and gives birth to a boy whom she names Sinona. But it later emerges that Sinona, who is born with teeth and whose bite during breastfeeding paralyses the joyful mother is no human. Sinona, a snake, is the creation of the witchdoctor.
Just a folktale? From a musician who sings Christian music?
But nothing can take away the stigma, the isolation, the derision and the rejection brought against an adult African woman who doesnâ€™t give birth. Being a mother is perhaps the greatest achievement a woman can attain in black Africa.
Can anything demonstrate the position of a woman who cannot give birth in Africa better than BBC Africa Live!, a call-in programme on June 4, 2004 that discussed how a hospital in Somalia had been forced to shut down for five weeks after a doctor had removed the womb of a woman to save her life?
Arguing that the woman, Fatuma Abdulle, was as good as dead without her womb, her family first sent gunmen to the hospital to kill the doctor who had performed the operation with the authority of her husband. The family then demanded the traditional Somali compensation offered for the death of a womanâ€”50 camelsâ€”from Dr Bashir Sheikh.
Somalia, like many black African countries, views barren adult women as â€˜uselessâ€™, no matter what they may have achieved in other areas of life.
Two Kenyan women, while pushing for the enactment of a law to regulate and make in-vitro fertilization (IVF) affordable, used the occasion to reveal that they had been discriminated against and insulted for not bearing children.
“Some of my colleagues here made very unfortunate remarks when we were politicking. One of them actually referred to me as a ‘barren prostitute’,” said Mbita Constituency MP Millie Odhiambo-Mabona.
“When I was campaigning, some of my opponents were heard asking the electorates, ‘How can you vote for a woman who cannot give birth? This woman has to be assisted to give birth”, it is a painful experience no woman would want to go through,â€ said Joyce Lay, the Woman Representative for Taita-Taveta Constituency who had her child through assisted reproduction.
So to what extent would you go to have a baby?
While some childless couples seek assistance from ‘medicine-men’, ‘witchdoctors’, ‘preachers’, ‘seers’ or ‘prophets’, others are stealing and selling babies to those who cannot have their own biological children.
Televangelist Gilbert Juma Deya and his wife Mary Deya were accused of conspiring with barren and post-menopausal women to steal and sell children from Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi whom they had dubbed ‘miracle babies’. The crime was committed between 1999 and 2004 when a British radio investigation exposed it.
While Deya continues to fight extradition from Britain to face prosecution in Kenya, his wife was arrested, charged, convicted and handed three years for stealing a baby and giving false information to a doctor in 2011.
Are Africans likely to change their perception on childless women since it is a fact that one in every four–more than 180 million couples in developing countries–couples suffers from infertility, according to the World Health Organization of the United Nations?
Perhaps it comes with relief for some childless couples in contemporary Africa to see several scientific and legislative initiatives being formed to assist them.
Merck KGaA, a German company specialising in health-care and life science, launched an all Africa campaign to reduce stigma against infertile women in Kenya and Uganda in June 2015. Merck KGaA, as reported by ArtMatters.Info, said it was working in collaboration with Kenya’s University of Nairobi’s School of Medicine and Kenya Women Parliamentary Association (KEWOPA) and Uganda’s Ministry of Health, Uganda Women Parliamentary Association (UWOPA) and Africa Fertility Society (AFS) on its ‘More Than a Mother’ initiative that seeks to “provide medical education and awareness for medical students and general practitioners.” It further said it is supporting “governments to define policies to improve access to safe and effective fertility care, address the need for interventions to reduce stigmatization and social suffering of infertile women and raise awareness about male infertility and the necessity for a team approach to family building among couples.”
Rasha Kelej, Chief Social Officer with Merck Healthcare, said Merck would “provide training for African embryologists in Indonesia starting with candidates from Uganda and Kenya” before scaling it up to the rest of the continent.
Though not very common due to its high cost, IVF is being considered by some well off African couples.
Surrogacy is also an option though not considered ‘natural’ by many Africans. In Kenya where the first surrogacy happened in August 2007, the process lacks proper legislation, making it difficult for would-be willing couples to adopt it.
Adoption, though picking up, is still viewed by many across the mother continent as not being any different from ‘buying’ babies.