Infertility: the silent assassin destroying marriages and families

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Sydney Kawadza

Zeripah, had not dated anyone when, as a 22-year-old she met the love of her life who later became her husband two years later.

She had high hopes for a successful and fruitful marriage but the marital bliss she anticipated turned into a nightmare whose effects still sends a chill down her spine. As fate would have it, she could not conceive.

In other advanced societies, her condition – the Mayer-Rokitansky-Kuster-Hauser (MRKH) syndrome – could have been diagnosed during her early childhood, but not for Zeripah who grew up in Zimbabwe.

She only discovered that she had the condition well after her marriage had devastatingly collapsed under the weight of barrenness and pressure from her husband’s parents who advised him to try other women who could bear them some grandchildren.

Infertility is the inability to achieve a clinical pregnancy after one year or more of regular intercourse and affects more than 70 million couples with more than 10 percent of women are inflicted.

But Zeripah, who was branded “a piece of furniture” by her in-laws before the spectacular collapse of her marriage, should have known better as she was growing up. The tell-tale signs were there for her to see and even her family should have known that something was definitely wrong. At the age of 24, Zeripah had never had menstrual circle as she married her husband.

Growing up in her teenage years, she still had a flat chest and her breasts too long to develop.

As she battled to conceive – trying traditional healers, spiritual healers, some dubious healers and even more dubious medical practitioners – she discovered MRKH after relocating to South Africa.

The MRKH syndrome which caused hormonal imbalance and needed vaginal re-construction but that was not a guarantee that she would conceive and have children of her own.

The syndrome affects mainly a woman’s re-productive system causing the vagina and uterus to be under-developed or absent although the external genitalia are normal.

It starts during foetal development and the victims only discover the syndrome later in life after reaching puberty especially when they do not have their menstrual cycles.

The condition affects at least 1 in 5 000 women.

Fortunately, Zeripah has grown to appreciate her fate and as part of her healing process, she has written a book titled: I am Also a Woman, which she hopes when it is published it can help other women going through similar challenges to overcome them and lead normal lives. 

Zeripah’s case is not an isolated one as many people have suffered in silence while several marriages have broken down to similar or related incidences.

Mwanachipo Africa Trust executive chairman, Heaven Munyuki, who suffered similarly after years of marriage without a child, said there are other several causes of infertility, which occurs in both women and men although women suffer the consequences even when the partner is the one failing to conceive.

“Problems can be found in men (30%), women (30%) or 30% in both partners while the causes cannot be discovered in 10 percent of the cases. So when facing infertility, the chances that it’s either a male or female cause is 50-50,” he said in an interview recently.

Mwanachipo Africa Trust is a non-political and non-profit making organization whose main objective is easing the burden of the infertile and childless couples as well as fostering a supportive community in which they can thrive.

“The organization’s thrust is alleviating the impact of infertility, uncovering possible pathways to prevent, control and overcome infertility while providing awareness to society on infertility issues and all family building options available.”

Munyuki and his wife, Dorothy, faced and endured stigma, discrimination, isolation, shortage of resources, failure to get clear entry points in public health to address the challenge due to infertility. 

“When we finally conceived through the medical route and by God’s hand, we discovered the need to help others in the same predicament and launched an online support group in March 2019 which drew a huge response in a short space of time and this drove us to form the Trust in 2020 to fulfill our vision,” he said.

Infertility is caused by several problems and, in men, it is caused by abnormal sperm production or function, genetic defects, varicocele and Sexually Transmitted Infections such as chlamydia and gonorrhoea.

Other causes are problems with sperm delivery including blockages, injury to reproductive organs, structural issues or damage due to cancer treatment such as chemotherapy.

Over-exposure to environmental factors such as pesticides,radiation, heat and some chemicals could also lead to the same problem.

In women, infertility can be cause by ovulation disorders,STIs, hormonal imbalances, polycystic ovary syndrome,Endometriosis, fibroids and blocked fallopian tubes.

“These are several ways that can lead to infertility and unfortunately there are several myths associated with infertility with the major one being the misconception that infertility issues are women problems only. This is not true because infertility affect men and women equally though blame is usually heaped on women,” Munyuki said.

Being a parent is a desired part of adult identity in most societies and for many couples, the inability to bear children is a tragedy. The conflux of personal, interpersonal, social,and religious expectations brings a sense of failure, loss, and exclusion to those who are infertile.

In the African culture, the coming of a baby reinforces the relationship between members of the two families and unfulfilled parenthood aspirations have far reaching consequences for women and men.

“When a couple fails to conceive within the expected period,there is pressure that usually mounts from relatives, friends and even from the couple itself.

“This pressure may be so intense that it can be a heavy burden to the couple especially the woman who is expected to carry the pregnancy. Infertility brings with it a wide range of socio-cultural,psychological, physical and financial problems.

“Psychological effects such as depression, frustration, hopelessness,worthlessness, anxiety, guilty feeling and suicidal thoughts may creep in. Infertility or sub-fertility may strain a healthy marriage by causing tensions in the home and cause either partner to be easily irritable and frustrated while it also tears at the core of the couple’s relationship as it may affect sexuality, self-esteem and self-image.”

One major consequences according to Munyuki, is unfaithfulness as either partner may engage in unprotected sex with multiple partners, exposing the couple to STIs or HIV. 

“Marriage instability may also manifest as domestic violence:physical fights, hurling of insults and quarreling leading to divorce. Most of these problems are exacerbated by pro-natalist and patriarchal societies which are not sympathetic to the childless women.

”Feminism is measured by the ability of a woman to conceive and the baby is usually valued more than its mother while society blames women while a men’s infertility is concealed at all costs and open discussions about male infertility are regarded as a taboo.

“Women are often abused and labelled with all sort of names such as witches, barren ‘ngomwa’ and are branded as prostitutes or accused of committing abortions before being married. These women face a plethora of challenges from their communities such social stigma, ostracism, isolation and ridicule.

”In other communities infertile men suffer stigmatization,verbal abuse and loss of social status and are even barred from taking leadership roles while the ‘curse’ of childlessness would follow them into the grave.

The World Health Organisation has also recommended that infertility be considered a global health problem while higher prevalence rates have been reported from developing countries including those in Sub-Saharan Africa because of limited resources. 

Zimbabwe has one of the world’s highest infertility rates along with others from Sub-Saharan Africa and infertility is officially reported to be on the increase.Experts have also concluded that at least one in every four Zimbabwean women of childbearing age suffer from some degree of infertility.

According to WHO, 186 million people around the world experience either primary or secondary infertility. 

Modern medical practices have also given hope to childless couples with recent reports of a successful womb transplant having been performed while others opt for surrogacy or adoption to fulfill their marriages.

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