International Women’s Day: It’s time we cleared stigma around infertility in women, challenged misinformation

An ICSI machine

An ICSI machine at the Fertility Point Clinic in Nairobi, on July 29, 2021. 

Photo credit: Francis Nderitu | Nation Media Group

The disproportionate burden of infertility placed on women is one of the largest myths that exists till date.

Infertility is defined as the inability to have children after trying for a year without any form of contraception. About 10-15 percent of African couples have been found to be infertile.

Society at large holds women at fault when a couple is childless after marriage. This can be traced to their responsibility in the childbearing and childrearing processes, one that is historically attributed to women.

The disproportionate blame placed on women is one of the largest myths that exists till date. It has been scientifically proven that the cause of infertility can be traced to underlying ailments in both men and women.

In men, the quality and quantity of sperm can be affected due to various factors that include conditions such as diabetes and infections like syphilis and chlamydia.

Fibroids

In women, these can be fibroids, poly-cystic ovary syndrome/disease, endometriosis, diabetes, and inadequate thyroid levels, among others. Causes common to both include hormonal imbalances, improper reproductive organs and genetic defects.

Therefore, compromised fertility in men can also result in a couple’s inability to have children, and the reverse is also applicable. It also means that in a heterosexual couple, defective reproductive functioning in both partners could be the underlying cause of infertility.

This information is slowly seeping through to more people, especially with more prominent women speaking about their journeys.

It is noteworthy that celebrities such as Michelle Obama, Tyra Banks, Beyonce Knowles and Chrissy Teigen have come forth, further empowering women struggling with infertility who look up to them, with knowledge that is scientifically-backed.

Such stories also help provide a quotient of relatability for many aspiring mothers – not just on their journey with fertility problems but to feel no shame or guilt about their condition in their own homes and workplaces.

The narrative should not just be about empowered women paving the way for more women to empower themselves. It can’t be said enough that women are central to this cultural shift since the brunt of the discrimination is borne by them.

De-stigmatising societies need to start at the grassroots, and challenge what is otherwise considered the norm among the communities, various members such as parents, husbands, in-laws, siblings, cousins, co-workers and employers.

This can be done by holding community awareness camps, and spreading the word using other channels such as radio, TV, newspapers and even digital media.

Initiatives such as HeForShe by the United Nations have paved the way for transformational changes toward gender equality, with members of all genders showing solidarity with women, and driving a change. 

At Fertility Point, male infertility is something we have sought to address since 2018 – a time when the topic of infertility was scarcely discussed at all, and something women were believed to be responsible for.

Fertility Point also played a role in the in sensitising people about the effects of infertility during a nationwide initiative organised by private players on November 4 last year.

As a medical practitioner, I come across a number of myths associated with infertility in women. On the occasion of International Women’s Day, I’d like to separate facts and some of the most common myths I’ve encountered.

Women can get pregnant after 35 years of age, but it should be kept in mind that fertility starts to decline henceforth. 

The same is also true for men wherein research has found that fertility decreases with age. The frequency of intercourse does not matter unless it coincides with the time of ovulation.

 Secondary infertility

Often, some couples are able to have one child without much trouble, but experience infertility later on. This phenomenon is called secondary infertility.

It is often also suggested that general health of a woman does not matter, however, leading a healthy lifestyle with little to no external stressors does help.

Globally, women have made strides in bringing about positive changes in society. The impetus for de-fogging the lens stigmatised with infertility, thus, doesn’t have just one stakeholder.

It must be a community-led initiative that challenges the status quo and uplifts those discriminated against.

Dr Rajesh Chaudhary, Lead IVF Expert, Fertility Point Kenya

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