Even though men are responsible for infertility in 50 percent of all cases, women are the ones who bear the shame. Nigerian novelist Sefi Atta breaks down this cultural phenomenon in Everything Good Will Come and Swallow. The main character in Swallow, Tolani, says to her roommate, “You know that if a woman is infertile she can’t hide it. If a man is sterile, no one has to know. Understand? The wife finds someone else to father her child, and keeps the whole thing secret.” Andrew Dosunmu’s 2013 film Mother of George follows a newlywed Nigerian couple living in New York City as they struggle to get pregnant, addressing pressure that’s difficult to escape even when in a completely different setting.
This burden is not unique to Africa. In Uzbekistan, where “life centers around children and a big family is the definition of personal success,” forced sterilization is on the rise due to a government attempt at population control, but women who are subjected to this violation of their rights face even further discrimination for not being able to have large families as is culturally expected. Adolat, an Uzbekistani woman who was forced to undergo forced sterilization, told the BBC that she considers herself a failure. “What am I after what happened to me? I always dreamed of having four—two daughters and two sons— but after my second daughter I couldn't get pregnant.”
As blogger IndianFeminist101 wrote, “In Indian society having kids is de facto and voluntarily not having kids is so exceptional that there is very little mainstream discussion about it.” In India, as well as Bangladesh and Pakistan, so much of a woman’s identity is based on how many children she has, that those who don’t reproduce sometimes endure awful treatment. Their marriages suffer, they are mistreated by their in-laws and friends, are left out of family events, criticized, prevented from seeking medical care, and occasionally starved.
In many developing countries, there is often no social security for ageing people, the idea being that children take care of the old. People who don’t have children are “viewed as a burden on the socioeconomic well-being of a community,” as Sheryl Vanderpoel, from the Reproductive Health and Research Department at the World Health Organization put it.
Latifat Ibisomi from the University of Witwatersrand and Netsayi Noris Mudege from the African Population and Health Research Center in Nairobi, found that such “a high premium is traditionally placed on having children [that] voluntary childlessness is rare.” In fact, “As a result of their seemingly deviant behavior, voluntary childless people [are] worthy to be harassed, ridiculed, ostracized or even killed.”
Nana Yaw Osei, who founded the Association of Childless Couples of Ghana (ACCOG) along with his wife Doris Osei, put it this way in an interview: “I can tell you that 100 percent there is nobody that doesn’t want to have children. Everyone who gets married wants to have a baby. There is nobody who doesn’t want to have a child.” The reasons for such mandatory reproduction there are largely traditional: A woman is obligated to carry on her husband’s line, it’s selfish not to have children, and parents want grandchildren.