Why the stigma attached to being childless in Africa is far greater than in the West

A couple without children is thought to be cursed, to have been bewitched, or to have angered the spirits.

GROWING up in Cote d’Ivoire, I could not help but notice the importance that was placed on having children. I am one of seven and that was considered the norm. 

Imagine then the panic of one family member who, unlike all the women around her, had difficulty conceiving. All sorts of rumours started spreading about her situation. Was she cursed? Was she the victim of witchcraft? Surely, she must have done something to deserve such a harsh fate. For, to every adult within the family, there could be no harsher fate than not being able to conceive. 

Having children seemed effortless; one of my maternal aunts either had twins or triplets. This is how fertile women seemed to be and so the relative who had difficulty conceiving, instead of getting sympathy, got sniggers. There was no precedent within the family and consequently, no way of understanding her plight. That was my first brush with issues related to infertility.

Stigma of being childless

There is no denying that the stigma attached to being childless in Africa, is far greater than anything I have ever witnessed here in the UK and this article from the World Health Organisation corroborates this assertion. 

According to the article: “Almost all cultures across Africa put emphasis on women having children … marriage without children is considered as a failure of the two individuals.” 

Divine connection

The reason why the issue of infertility in Africa is as potent as it is, is in great part due to religion. Indeed unlike many Western countries such as the UK where secularism has become the norm, African countries place a very high value on their faith and children are seen as a gift from God. It is this divine connection that makes the stigma that much greater in my view. 

Yes there is certainly stigma attached to being childless in the West, however you don’t often hear childless people being referred to as cursed. The potency of that word along with the extreme vilification of childless people, particularly women, is what sets most of Africa apart from the West (but makes it similar to most parts of Asia and South America).

A personal story

When my husband and I set out to start a family in 2004, neither of us anticipated that the journey would last nine years and that we would end up childless at the end of it. I am in no doubt that had we lived in the Ivory Coast, the finger of blame would automatically be pointed at me even though my husband is the one with the fertility issues.

Indeed, according to the World Health Organisation, in 50% of cases, the reason why a couple is unable to conceive is because the man in the relationship is infertile. Unsurprisingly, no one back in Cote d’Ivoire can quite understand how we as a couple cannot have children. However, unlike the many women across the continent who are being ostracised, the fact that I live in the UK has allowed me to carry on with my life undisturbed. 

Once I came to terms with not having children, I became passionate about empowering others to do the same and this is how nonparents.com came about. 

My message is simple and it is that not all paths are meant to include children. Whatever path we find ourselves on, the key is to embrace it wholeheartedly. To all those people who see being childless as a curse, I say, you are completely mistaken and the fact that some of the most powerful people on the planet such as Oprah Winfrey and Angela Merkel are childless, proves me right - if proof was ever needed.

Nina Steele is the founder of www.nonparents.com, a community for people without children, by circumstance or choice.

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