Mary Mdawa from Chikunkhu Village in Thyolo dreams of having a baby someday.
The 35-year-old has been in a childless marriage for 22 years. The woman, who married aged13, has endured demeaning remarks and treatment from her neighbours in the remote part of Traditional Authority (T/A) Mphuka.
“I have been to different hospitals and herbalists, but I am still the laughing stock,” she says.
Two times, Mdawa’s husband has walked away from her to father children with other women.
Although he has returned, she feels the desperate search for a child puts her at risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs), including HIV and Aids.
“I don’t know what to do because my husband is supportive,” she says, helplessly.
Remedy in sight
Similarly, Ruth Kamuna also has no child. She experienced a pregnancy complication a year after marrying her childhood sweetheart half a decade ago. Ever since, she has not had another pregnancy, but she remains hopeful.
Many childless couples, especially women, face stigma, shame and self-blame.
However, there are medical solutions to infertility in both men and women.
Thanks to advances in treatment, Lilongwe-based Vera Kamtukule had a child after two years trying.
“I’m now a mother of two,” she says.
Research shows that 90 percent of infertility cases are reversible.
The gravity of infertility problems in the country remain unknown, but Dr Martha Masamba estimates that one in every five couples face such challenges.
“For some of them, the problem will stay for a very long time, but for others it is resolved after some time,” states the gyneacologist-cum-obstetrician.
According to Masamba, STIs remain the most common cause of infertility among young mothers in sub-Saharan Africa.
In others, the condition is attributable to blocked fallopian tubes as well as genetic disorders and discrepancies in hormone levels.
The specialist discredited the widespread myth that contraceptives could be to blame for infertility, saying all modern family planning methods are reversible.
“After stopping use of contraceptives, some people wait for some time until their fertility returns. But the waiting phase does not go beyond one year. None of the contraceptives prevent one from conceiving. Most people get pregnant almost immediately after stopping contraception,” she clarifies.
Masamba advises people struggling with infertility to seek medical attention.
“The solution depends on the cause,” she says. “Once the cause is established, they can be treated accordingly.”
For instance, Masamba explains that women with hormonal disorders need medication to stimulate ovulation.
“For those with blocked tubes, the treatment depends on whether one or both tubes are affected. If both tubes are blocked, the client will be referred outside the country for in vitro fertilisation (IVF).
The procedure also applies to male infertility, depending on the problem.
The doctor warns against stigma and discrimination faced by people without children.
In July, First Lady Gertrude Mutharika was named the country’s ambassador for Merck Foundation’s More than a Mother initiative to eliminate issues of infertility.
“When it comes to this fight, we are our own enemy,” she said. “Time has come to break the silence because infertility has serious social and psychological consequences such as abuse and marriage breakdowns.”
The First Lady states that women are often at the receiving end of ridicule and the name-calling which reduces the dignity of those affected.
“The solutions accepted by society, including polygamy, are damaging,” she notes.
According to Merck Foundation chief executive officer Rasha Kelej, the new initiative aims to empower men and women with fertility issues in Africa by increasing access to information, education, health care and mindset change.
Men’s issue too
To her, infertility is no longer a hidden issue and the stigma around it must go.
She explains: “Women deserve respect even if they cannot have children. There are many women in different societies that can be blamed, criticised and banished for not having children even if they are not the reason for the infertility.
“About 50 percent of the infertility cases are because of men.”
The More than a Mother initiative also targets men because they are equally responsible for infertility.
“Infertility problems can be treated if diagnosed early,” states Kalej. n