Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Infertility in Nigeria and the race for parenthood

Princewill Udom
Port Harcourt, Nigeria

Infertility is a growing problem in Nigeria. In one study, researchers found that female gender-related causes accounted for 42.9% of infertility, in contrast to male causes, which were about half that number.1 Common causes are broadly categorized into genetic, physiological, endocrine, and lifestyle factors. One consequence of this problem is a parallel increase in the number of “deliverance ministries,” so-called churches where women go to receive “prayers” to become pregnant. Headed mostly by women, who bear titles such as prophetess, Mummy, or Woman of God, some deliverance ministries also accommodate pregnant women in order to ward off demonic attacks during delivery. Such attacks are believed to be responsible for stillbirths and maternal or child mortality. The leaders of these ministries claim to wield benign divine powers that can neutralize such attacks. They hold regular prayer times, which draw scores of nulliparous women. Before, during, or after such prayers, the women are prescribed herbal concoctions prepared by the ministry officials. This is usually after the prophetess or leader has examined each woman by touching or massaging her lower abdomen or womb.

The popularity of these deliverance ministries has blossomed as a result of information-sharing among women, especially those trying to conceive. Many women claim to have found a solution to their infertility here. Some boldly announce in Pentecostal churches, holding their babies aloft, the gift of a baby by God after many years of anguished waiting.

In most parts of Africa, there is the widespread belief that the woman is solely responsible for the lack of children in the home. This is one reason why the deliverance ministries witness a large turnout of women. These women are willing to do whatever they are asked just so they can have a child. They drink unknown concoctions, spend colossal sums of money, or fast and pray for seven days or longer. In many African communities, the inability to have children debases a married woman. A childless woman is often denied property rights and human rights. In rural areas in particular, she is only entitled to a small portion of land, as opposed to a woman with children who can have as many allotments as the number of children she has. A childless woman may be summarily evicted from her late husband’s property without any compensation, regardless of whether the man left a will. Many of these practices are illegal but the women are usually too powerless to contest them. Even among women, a childless woman is considered second-class, someone who does not warrant an audience, even in matters in which she is supremely qualified. Innuendos, derision, and pure contempt trail her wherever she goes. It is not uncommon to hear, “My husband is threatening to send me out of my matrimonial home if I am unable to give him a child within his appointed deadline.” Some husbands have gone ahead and married another wife just to have children, since polygamy is sanctioned under Nigeria’s customary law. There are also men who have fathered children out of wedlock while still living with an infertile wife.

One woman who became pregnant after visiting a deliverance ministry after eight years of childlessness, recalled receiving threats from her in-laws. Many of these women can easily enumerate the long lists of hospitals, churches, and traditional herbalists that dashed their hopes. Almost all of the women who visit the ministries have seen many doctors and can name the unending diagnostic tests and examinations they have undergone, including intrusive, uncomfortable, and expensive ones. Common diagnoses include fibroids, hormonal problems, occlusion of the fallopian tubes, and reproductive tract infections. There are those who complain of not seeing their menstrual flow for as long as six years! When doctors recommend surgery or other medical procedures, whether out of fear of losing their lives, or indigence, or ignorance, some women run to the deliverance ministries or herbal medicine consultants, who counter the doctors’ recommendations. Instead they prescribe prayer and a cocktail of herbal mixture at relatively low cost.

Assurances from the prophetess and the women who have had babies through her assistance can be exceedingly persuasive and convincing. Medical diagnoses crash before such assurances. Some doctors are apparently complicit in boosting the profile of a few of the deliverance ministries. A prophetess at one of the ministries, fondly called “Mummy of mummies” by her clients, proudly announced to a crowd of women that doctors refer difficult gynecological cases to her. She claimed to have successfully treated cases that included primary and secondary infertility, obliquely positioned fetuses in the womb, menstruating pregnant women, and pregnant women who cannot feel the fetus moving. She emphatically stated that she has never received any formal medical training, and that her knowledge and skills are gifts from God through her grandmother. Her adult children work as her assistants, having acquired the necessary experience through working with their mother over the years. They prescribe and dispense herbal concoctions with confidence in return for payment.

The clientele varies in terms of social status: from businesswomen to bankers, teachers to professors, and homemakers to professionals. The register of clients is a tome. A cursory glance at the car park outside one of the deliverance ministries shows an array of high-end cars. Women who have children of a particular gender but need children of a different gender are also found there. For instance, the desire to have a boy can lure a woman who has three girls already to visit a deliverance ministry. The woman who finally conceived after eight years amid threats from her in-laws was so overwhelmed with excitement after her visit to a ministry that she boasted she would visit the village to show her in-laws her baby bump. She reckoned that if she waited until after the delivery of the baby before visiting them, they might insinuate that she had purchased the baby.

Bizarrely, deliverance ministries have spawned illegal businesses involved in the buying and selling of babies. These businesses are pejoratively described as “baby factories.” On the pretext of assisting pregnant teenage girls that have been rejected by their parents, or pregnant women whose husbands have left them, the baby factory provides accommodation, food, and crude medical services until delivery. Usually run by ostensibly selfless women, the babies are then sold to childless couples at exorbitant prices. The prices for boys and girls vary, and the baby factories are usually located in private compounds, hotels, remote rural settlements, up-market accommodations, or bivouacs in shanty towns. In 2018, a US-based Nigerian woman was arrested with a female accomplice after a search of her hotel room led to the discovery of three babies with no genetic or biological relationship to either woman. The government has closed down a number of baby factories after their owners were accused of holding teenage girls against their will and paying men to have sex with them so they could become pregnant, and then selling their babies at hefty prices.

The police are currently investigating cases of missing babies. In one case, a woman who gained the confidence of a new mother of twin babies suddenly vanished with the babies while the mother dozed off. Neighbors thought nothing untoward when they saw her leaving with the babies because she had visited the mother daily before the theft of the babies. Even more shocking are rumors about individuals who believe that buying and sacrificing babies as part of voodoo practices can make them become suddenly rich.

These crimes are exacerbated by the extremely high costs of legitimate alternatives such as adoption and in-vitro fertilization (IVF), which are beyond the reach of most couples seeking children. They are also laden with bureaucratic hurdles and corruption. Moreover, they are considered alien to the indigenous culture and incapable of truly indemnifying the anguish of childlessness.

(Photo source: Pixabay)

End notes

  1. Abubakar A Panti and Yusuf T Sununu (2014) The profile of infertility in a teaching hospital in North West Nigeria, Sahel Medical Journal, Volume 17, Issue 1, Page 7-11

PRINCEWILL UDOM is a Nigerian early career academic and researcher. He is a member of the Economic History Society and the managing editor of Rupine Publishing House. He is also a lecturer at Management Development Institute, Nigeria. His research interests spans humanitarian, economic, and social history. He lives in Nigeria.

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