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Film Review: Childless in the World's Most Fertile Country

16 March 2020
Appeared in BioNews 1039

The impact infertility has on the quality of life is significant. Numerous studies, reports and questionnaires highlight its effects on individuals, couples and society. Nowhere is the impact of infertility on quality of life as apparent as in the country where you're expected to have the most children of all – the Niger. 

A country's total fertility rate is measured as the average number of children born per woman. In the Niger, the total fertility rate is at 6.95. To put things in perspective, the UK's total fertility rate is at 1.68 (the lowest it has been since 2003), and generally, in the Western world, these rates are on the decline. The disparity in total fertility rates between countries is considerable. 

Niger tops the world list, and another 19 African countries make up the top 20. In the West, these figures would set off alarm bells, maybe even make us question the fate of our planet and the human race. But these figures paint a distorted image of a part of the world the West isn't very familiar with. 

Nigerien filmmaker Aicha Macky's short ten-minute film for the BBC, 'Childless in the world's most fertile country' puts the statistical and economical aspects to one side and explores the significant toll infertility has on the quality of life in a community, particularly for women. The story is told through a compilation of short interviews – with a doctor, a midwife, a woman who struggled with infertility but finally succeeded, then some who didn't, as well as a retelling of the filmmaker's own struggles with conceiving.

'Here, a woman is a tree, casting shade for her resting husband, for whom she bears fruit. Me, I'm a tree that casts shade, but I'm merely ornamental, a fruitless tree.' 

The film examines the societal and cultural pressures these women face to have a child, so much so that it makes you feel that the act of having the child is more important than the child itself. Sadly, in many cultures around the world, it is the woman's 'responsibility' to ensure that she can deliver a child (and then some) for her other half. 

Little to no 'responsibility' is given to the man, despite the fact that infertility does not favour one gender over the other, and comes in the form of social pressure, which stigmatises these women in the eyes of their husbands, their families, and the wider community. 

This dislocated burden can cause a man to find another wife who can bear his fruit, even if it's the man's own sperm count which is the culprit. The doctor was telling our interviewer the story of a man, who took four wives, until his pride waivered and was finally convinced to test himself, only to find, in an almost comedic twist of irony, that it was male factor infertility that prevented his previous three wives from giving him the child he so longed for. 

While comedic is not a word to describe a couple's struggle with infertility, the film does give you this sense of 'justice is served' in this scenario, but you get the impression that pride is not the only reason that man did not accept a childless wife, as societal pressure to have a baby is on both men and women.

But it is not all bleak. The film takes a more uplifting tone as it also examines stories where men defy societal expectation and stand up for their wives in the face of the community and even their own families. One particularly emotional example is of a man who stood in public calling out his wife as the real hero for sticking with him, even though it is he who cannot provide her with the child their families and community demand.

In the West, awareness on the subject of infertility is increasing, this isn't necessary the case for the rest of the world. In fact, in large parts of the world awareness is considerably low.

This film sheds light on a very sensitive subject, and it does so with the right balance of realism and optimism. It balances the despair of these women affected with hope, hope that there are many who don't hold women responsible for infertility, hope that men will not look elsewhere and stand by their wives and partners and, most importantly, hope that this film can reach a wider audience, to educate and enlighten. 

I hope that we see more films on the subject of infertility from different parts of the world, to combat this stigma and lift the lid off this taboo. Infertility affects an estimated 15 percent of couples around the world, this is no small number, but it's no one's fault. We must not give up on getting this message across.

Niger: What's it like to be a childless woman?
BBC News |  24 February 2020
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