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Study Reveals the Profound Impact of Infertility on Nigerian Women

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A recent study published in the Journal of Social Sciences and Public Policy has brought to light the profound social and cultural impact of infertility on childless women among the Igbomina ethnic group in Kwara South, Nigeria. Dr Oluwakemi S. Iwelumor and her team’s research examines the lived experiences of thirteen childless women to reveal the numerous difficulties they encounter in a culture that places a high value on motherhood.

Infertility in Nigeria, as in many other African cultures, is often perceived as a personal failure rather than a medical condition. The study highlights that women are primarily held responsible for childlessness, facing severe societal stigma and personal anguish. This cultural perception is deeply ingrained, making infertility not just a medical issue but a significant social problem.

One of the primary themes that emerged from the interviews is that infertility is experienced as a “riddle”. According to the women, people who have not experienced infertility frequently misunderstand or underestimate the pain and suffering that go along with it. Faith, a participant in the study, described it as an “internal agony,” worse than the pain of miscarriage.

The study also explores how infertility affects marital relationships and family dynamics. Many women described their infertility as sitting on a “time bomb,” with constant fear and anxiety about the future of their marriages. The societal expectation that marriage is primarily for procreation makes this fear worse. Participants reported that childlessness often leads to marital tensions, with some women choosing to hide their fertility status from their husbands due to fear of abandonment or blame.

Ayo, a participant, expressed this fear succinctly, stating: “A woman without a child has no permanent stay in her husband’s house, no matter what.” This sentiment underscores the precarious position of childless women in their marital homes, where they often face the threat of their husbands taking additional wives or engaging in extramarital affairs.

The emotional and psychological toll of infertility is another significant aspect of the study. Participants reported experiencing a range of negative emotions, including shame, guilt, and depression. Many women felt isolated and avoided social gatherings to escape the constant questions and unsolicited advice about their childlessness. Itunu, another participant, said she felt ashamed and avoided social interactions, fearing that people were mocking her.

The study also found that the burden of infertility often leads to existential crises among women. They grapple with feelings of worthlessness and question the meaning and purpose of their lives without children. Ayo articulated this: “The world is just so unfair to those without children, and it makes one doubt one’s existence.”

The cultural context in which these women live exacerbates their struggles. In the Igbomina culture, like many others in Nigeria, a woman’s worth is closely tied to her ability to bear children. This cultural expectation puts immense pressure on women to conceive, often leading them to seek various, sometimes dubious, treatments.

The study also reveals the role of religious and traditional beliefs in shaping the experiences of infertile women. Some participants turned to spiritual and traditional healers, reflecting a widespread belief in supernatural causes of infertility. This dual approach to seeking solutions – combining medical, spiritual, and traditional practices – highlights the complex interplay of cultural beliefs in the management of infertility.

The findings of this study underscore the need for comprehensive, culturally sensitive interventions to support infertile women in Nigeria. There is a critical need for public enlightenment programmes that address the social stigma of infertility and promote understanding and empathy. Additionally, integrating cultural considerations into reproductive health interventions could help mitigate the negative impacts on childless women.

Iwelumor and her team call for the renegotiation of sociocultural aspects of infertility to design effective intervention programmes. Such programmes should aim not only at improving reproductive healthcare but also at addressing the deep-seated cultural beliefs and social structures that contribute to the suffering of infertile women.

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