Why Are Women Still Blamed And Shamed For Childlessness?

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In many cultures, especially in India, childless women suffer discrimination, stigma, and ostracism. So, if they are not able to bear children it can result in isolation, assaults and even disinheritance.

On Thursday, there was a reported case of a woman who allegedly attempted suicide in Chhatarpur, Madhya Pradesh, because she could not bear being called ‘banjh’ (barren) by her mother-in-law. Her husband too had called her characterless alleging that she had affairs with other men.

In Indian society getting married and procreating is the only aim in life for women, or that is what we are told. From the time a child is born, parents start dreaming of marrying them. Once they are married, the whole family, relatives, and even the neighbourhood all wait for the ‘good news’ so that the same cycle can be repeated. But if that doesn’t happen within two, three or five years, they are asked to go for various treatments. And god forbid if they are not able to have a baby even after that, questions begin to rise on the fertility of the woman.

I read somewhere about a man describing how his cousin was thrown out by her family after the couple couldn’t conceive. “I’m someone who comes from rural India. Where some people still today think that to have a heir, to look after for the family and land, is must. If you are medically, because of any reason, not capable of having kids, then they’ll make sure you don’t have a normal life. And especially for the girls.

I have one of my cousin Dii (elder sister) who got married in 2012. Due to some medical reasons she couldn’t conceive. We never knew and also not now, that whether she is not capable or her husband. But people immediately conclude that it was her. *Typical mentality*. She had been enough tortured from then. She was discarded by her in-laws. Her husband requested to do a second marriage. She was even called out to be a eunuch, which she isn’t.” (Sic)

You’ll hear of such cases in your families and neighbourhood. So, what is the truth, does the responsibility of bearing a child solely lie on a woman?

Infertility is a rising problem in India

Yes, it’s surprising that a country that might overtake China as the most populous country in near future also has the problem of rising infertility.

World Health Organization describes infertility as the failure to conceive after 12 months of regular sexual intercourse, a minimum of two to three times a week, without the use of contraception.

Infertility affects almost 15 percent of the Indian couples. Factors like late marriages, stressful lifestyles, obesity, high junk food intake, smoking, alcoholism, and substance abuse can contribute to the problem.

But couples struggling with infertility have hope now as they can go for medical interventions to conceive and no, the blame does not lie squarely with the woman. Infertility is as common among men as it is in women.

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So, why are women taunted for childlessness?

Unfortunately, women are often blamed when a couple can’t have children. People forget that both the husband and wife contribute to the success of having a child. The focus however is on the uterus that cannot produce a child.

In a dominant patriarchal society men are considered stronger than women. A child is the symbol of a man’s virility, strength and sexual capacity. It is sad but true that this belief comes as a result of the social construct of their gender identity. Men often deflect the reason for infertility towards women to prevent social scrutiny of their masculinity. This stigma is undoubtedly unfair to women which can lead to ostracisation or physical abuse. But it is unfair to men as well as it keeps them from seeking help or opening up about fertility issues even with their near ones.

Women blame women

Like in the case of the Chhatarpur woman, it is often women who taunt other women over their fertility. It is a domestic power play- a woman gains respect and importance in a family when she gives birth to a child (more so if it’s a male child). Similarly she can bring another women down and reduce her importance the family by taunting her about her infertility.

When a new woman in the form of a daughter-in-law enters a house, the matriarch feels threatened. First because she feels her son will shift his affections to his bride and secondly when the bahu gives birth to the next generation heir. Her position as the mother in a household is challenged. So, when a woman is not able to conceive and produce an heir the mother-in-law regains her lost ground. Besides, women too have internalised the belief that producing a child is solely dependent on women and if she cannot do this basic duty towards her family she needs to be replaced or sidelined.

We as a society have to realise that infertility or childlessness is not the end of a woman’s life. Infertility can be treated; the treatments can range from simple methods such as lifestyle modification to more sophisticated medical interventions like such as insemination and in vitro fertilization. If not couples can go in for surrogacy or adoption. However, another option that needs to be discussed is remaining childless.

Is there nothing more to life than birthing and bringing up kids? There are many childless couples who live a happy and content life, focusing their energy and time elsewhere. If only such couples could find more acceptance in all nooks and corners of our country.

Views expressed are the author’s own.