Stop Stigmatizing Childlessness Among Ghanaians!

Mon, 24 Aug 2009 Source: Pryce, Daniel K.

It is an undeniable fact that human beings are the kings and queens of all of God's handiwork, which is why the argument that human reproduction, should it cease worldwide today, will result in human extinction in approximately one hundred years, is a factual one. While people reproduce for a mosaic of reasons, perhaps the reason that trumps all others is the perpetuation of the human race. Now, some couples plan from the outset to have a specific number of children (an achievable goal due to the avalanche of contraceptive methods and devices available today); but others leave it to providence, preferring to have as many children as their bodies are able to handle, and also because of their ideological and/or religious inclinations. Neither goal is bad, since a lower birth rate in one part of the world may be counterbalanced by a higher-than-average birth rate someplace else. Then, there are some couples, primarily Westerners, who prefer to not have any kids at all. So, should a couple be stigmatized just because they are unable to reproduce? Why are some wives treated as scum simply because they are unable to reproduce?

Having children serves a lot of purposes: happiness for the couple; proof that the man is both virile and fertile; children to inherit their parents' possessions in later years, especially when these parents are wealthy; a means to prolong the family name; extra hands to cultivate farmlands, among other reasons.

When a woman understands that her husband wants to be a father at all costs, she is overjoyed to give him children. Some argue that such men tend to love their wives more, and that the presence of children actually bolsters these relationships. As a father, I will admit that I love my children dearly, so, perhaps, fatherhood was right for me. But even as I celebrate God's gifts to my household - children - I will admit too willingly that I belong to the school of thought that espouses careful planning when it comes to the number of children a couple should have.

The virility and fertility arguments are, perhaps, important ones, especially for those who live in Ghana's small towns and villages. I still remember very vividly the stories that I was told as a child about couples who, allegedly, had to secretly give their wives to other men in order to reproduce, the latter sworn to death-invoking secrecy to never divulge these mutually beneficial arrangements, so as to avoid exposing the sexually weak men to ridicule, since virility was the quintessence of the Ghanaian male's authority in the home. Even some traditional leaders were said to have benefitted from these secret arrangements. Of course, had those secrets been kept by those sworn to them, in spite of the calamity- and death-summoning oaths forced upon all parties involved, the rest of us would never have heard about them! An important lesson for all: There are really no safe secrets under the sun!

It is worrisome for wealthy couples if they do not have biological children, for obvious reasons. While a childless couple may leave their wealth to those designated in their wills or living trusts, it is generally more satisfying and less contentious if the recipients are biological children.

Prolonging or maintaining the family name is quite an important need for most men, which is why some men with only daughters will complain about being unable to have sons. Sadly, the myth that sons provide greater benefits to their parents than daughters has been around for ages, and debunking such a myth may not be particularly easy, but we just have to keep trying to make the adherents of this myth understand that neither gender is inherently superior. After all, the gender of a child is far less important than the opportunities the child is given in life.

A very pragmatic reason for having lots of children, especially in agricultural communities, is for the obvious additional hands to help cultivate the land. And it is for the same reason that some of these men become unhappy when their wives are not able to have children, especially boys. Of course, the preceding argument is based on the premise that these farmers still have not taken advantage of the multiplicity of modern farm tools, such as tractors, to cultivate their farmlands.

So, what happens when a couple cannot have children? Generally, women tend to receive the full assault of blame for a couple's childlessness, irrespective of the biological or medical conditions that may be responsible for the problem. For the poor woman who is married to an inconsiderate man, she soon faces a number of risks: an unjustifiable divorce; accusations of witchcraft; physical assault; the objectionable arrival of a rival, among other dangers.

It is saddening to note that some women, after being married to their husbands for more than a decade and not being able to have children, are ignominiously thrown out of their marital homes, usually with the covert and overt support of the man's jealous relatives. It is more saddening if the man, although able to do so, does nothing to save his wife from the demeaning insults and verbal abuse that she would have to endure from the man's very aggressive relatives. And then there are the rampant and verisimilitudinous accusations of witchcraft leveled against the woman by her husband's relatives, these notorious accusers leaving behind nothing but a trail of shattered lives and dreams. And has the reader ever wondered why these accusations tend to be unidirectional - the husband's family accusing the woman's family and never the opposite situation? Hopefully, all of us will become more sympathetic toward the women we know who have been falsely accused of "selling" their wombs to Satan!

In some extreme cases, some unhappy husbands, simply because their wives are not able to become pregnant after many years, improperly and criminally channel their frustrations and anger toward these women via intimidations and assaults, the latter resulting in bodily harm. No human being should ever be subjected to physical abuse for any reason; and no woman, wife or mother should ever allow herself to become a man's punching bag, no matter the excuses put forth by the maniac and those around him!

The problem actually gets worse, if the man marries a second wife - an erroneous, but seemingly panacean, solution to the couple's childlessness. Many marriages have crumbled in Ghana because the men arrived home one day with new women in tow, only to tell their wives, unashamedly, that they needed additional wives in hopes of having children at all costs. Perhaps, the reader may have to experience one of these marital tragedies to understand the searing pain that these poor women are generally forced to endure - these women either remain in joyless marriages or leave. While polygamy is still acceptable in Ghana, I have always wondered if polyandry (a woman being married to more than one husband simultaneously) will be acceptable to our men. I am certain that the answer will be a resounding "no!" But is it not said that what is good for the goose should be good for the gander too? It is for this reason that I fully support female empowerment - educating our daughters so they can secure good jobs and become financially independent of men.

Imagine this painful prospect of some wives "legally" sharing their men with other women, as mentioned earlier, sometimes even without being notified in advance that their husbands were going in for additional wives. When a hurting wife complains, she is told by her husband to remember two things: that he is the sole breadwinner and that he must have children at all costs, so as not to be seen as impotent by relatives and outsiders. Since a typical Ghanaian male equates virility/fertility with conjugal authority, a poor wife is forced to face the embarrassment of being seen by outsiders as a terrible wife, once her husband's new wife arrives, the very thing that the man had found terrifying in the first place! Does it not surprise the reader that it is always the woman who is blamed for a couple's inability to have children, even though the fault could really be the man's? More annoyingly, some of these men actually refuse to get tested when their women are unable to get pregnant, a situation that can be considered the epitome of all senselessness and hypocrisy. Together we can all work hard to save several marriages around us that have broken down because of the couples' inability to have children. A piece of advice, a word of caution, a powerful appeal to reason may be all that is necessary to salvage a dead - or dying - relationship, by getting both husband and wife to seek medical help together, rather than the husband continually and ignorantly blaming his wife exclusively for their childlessness.

The writer, Daniel K. Pryce, holds a master's degree in public administration from George Mason University, U.S.A. He is a member of the national honor society for public affairs and administration in the U.S.A. He can be reached at dpryce@cox.net.

Columnist: Pryce, Daniel K.