Creating awareness is a crucial step to breaking the stigma of infertility in Africa

A young woman reacts to the result of a pregnancy test. Image by SHVETS production via Pexels. Used under a free license.

Infertility is a global issue that affects millions of individuals and couples. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 6 people worldwide are affected by infertility.

Though experienced by both men and women, the cultural and social landscape of the African continent often exacerbates the challenges faced by women struggling with infertility. In Africa, the stigma surrounding infertility tends to disproportionately target women, subjecting them to social isolation, emotional distress, violence, and economic hardships. Shockingly, there have even been cases of extreme violence, such as a Kenyan woman having her hands chopped off by her husband because of this issue. A short documentary entitled “Not a Woman” sheds light on the challenges faced by infertile women in Africa, as it follows a couple in rural Uganda who were trying to conceive.

Cultural beliefs and misconceptions play a significant role in perpetuating the stigma of infertility in Africa as revealed in a study by Reproductive Health journal. Many societies place immense value on motherhood and consider it a woman's primary role and purpose. Consequently, when a woman is unable to conceive, she is often labelled as “incomplete” or “less than a woman.” Such beliefs, deeply rooted in traditional norms, lead to the marginalization of the victims and create a social environment that undermines their self-esteem.

Family and societal expectations also place immense pressure on infertile women, leading to strained relationships and even the dissolution of marriages. Infertility is frequently blamed solely on the woman, with little consideration given to the possibility of male-factor infertility. Consequently, women endure blame, shame, and the fear of abandonment, further exacerbating their emotional distress.

The impact of stigma on infertile people

Infertility stigma in Africa presents considerable emotional and psychological challenges for individuals and couples. Within the cultural and societal context, prevailing beliefs often assign blame solely to women, resulting in feelings of guilt, shame, and inadequacy. This pervasive stigma perpetuates a cycle of silence and isolation, preventing those affected from seeking support, openly discussing their struggles, and accessing appropriate healthcare. A study published on PubMed Central affirms the existence of infertility stigma and its profound emotional and psychological impact on infertile women.

Infertility stigma also has a detrimental impact on mental health. It can contribute to the development of conditions such as depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These mental health challenges further impair the ability to cope with infertility, making the process of conception even more daunting.

Moreover, the cost of infertility treatments can be prohibitively expensive, creating financial hardships for those unable to afford such care. This additional burden exacerbates the stress and strain associated with infertility, further complicating the coping process. A systematic review entitled “Financial costs of assisted reproductive technology for patients in low- and middle-income countries” validates that direct medical expenses incurred by patients for infertility treatment exceed the annual average income and GDP per capita, highlighting the issue of unaffordability and the potential for catastrophic expenditure among those in need.

Creating awareness and breaking the stigma

Creating awareness about infertility is a crucial step in breaking the stigma and providing support to affected individuals and couples. Organizations like the Merck Foundation, in collaboration with partners such as the International Federation of Fertility Societies (IFFS) and the Africa Reproductive Care Society (ARCS), are at the forefront of efforts to raise awareness and empower infertile couples. Through summits, campaigns, and initiatives, these organizations aim to educate communities, provide access to information and resources, and advocate for changes in societal attitudes toward infertility.

On June 19, Merck Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Merck KgaA Germany, partnered with the International Federation of Fertility Societies (IFFS) and the Africa Reproductive Care Society (ARCS) to host the second edition of the World Infertility Awareness Summit (WIAS) 2023 in Accra, Ghana. The summit's aim was to raise awareness about infertility, particularly male infertility, and break the stigma associated with it. The event was a collaborative effort to empower infertile women and couples through access to information, education, and healthcare, while also promoting a change of mindset within communities.

Another significant event contributing to awareness about infertility in Africa is the Fertility Show Africa. The event, scheduled to take place on August 5 and August 6, in Johannesburg, South Africa, brings together leading fertility, adoption, and surrogacy specialists in one place. The Fertility Show Africa provides a safe and supportive environment for visitors seeking to start or expand their families. This event serves as an invaluable resource for those seeking information and advice on fertility-related issues.

In addition to larger organizations and events, various local entities are championing infertility issues on the continent. Dimbayaa, based in Namibia, the Infertility Awareness Association of South Africa NPC, Beibei Haven Foundation, and the Ibidunni Ighodalo Foundation, based in Nigeria, are actively involved in supporting individuals and couples struggling with infertility. These organizations offer a range of services, including counselling, support groups, and awareness campaigns to reduce the stigma and provide a platform for those facing infertility to connect and seek assistance.

Challenging cultural beliefs and norms

Addressing the stigma associated with infertility requires challenging deeply ingrained cultural beliefs and norms. Traditional practices, such as attributing blame solely to women or perpetuating harmful rituals, need to be replaced with accurate information, education, and compassion. Organizations are working towards raising awareness about the causes of infertility, debunking myths, and promoting a more inclusive understanding of the issue. Collaborative efforts with community leaders, religious institutions, and influencers are essential in breaking down the barriers of stigma and fostering a supportive environment.

Supporting mental health and well-being

Infertility takes a toll on the mental health and well-being of individuals and couples. The emotional distress and strain caused by infertility can lead to anxiety, depression, and strained relationships. It is crucial to provide comprehensive support that addresses the emotional, psychological, and social aspects of infertility. Counselling services, support groups, and mental health interventions should be integrated into the overall care and support framework for individuals and couples facing infertility.

Infertility in Africa is a multifaceted issue that encompasses medical, cultural, social, and emotional dimensions. Creating awareness, breaking the stigma, and promoting access to healthcare and education are crucial steps in addressing infertility and supporting those affected. The efforts of the Merck Foundation, IFFS, ARCS, and events like the Fertility Show Africa, along with local organizations championing infertility issues, play a significant role in creating a supportive environment for individuals and couples struggling with infertility. By encouraging dialogue, providing resources, challenging societal norms, and supporting mental health, we can break the silence surrounding infertility and build a future of understanding, acceptance, and compassion in Africa.

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