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Infertility stigma: The daily trauma childless couples face in Ghana

BY: Zadok Kwame Gyesi
Josephine while wearing her fake pregnancy
Josephine while wearing her fake pregnancy

This story examines the impact of stigma on childless couples in Ghana, using the incident where a 28-year-old Josephine Panyin Mensah allegedly faked pregnancy and kidnapping at Takoradi in Ghana’s Western Region. The controversies surrounding the incident subjected the victim, Josephine, to public ridicule. She is currently facing criminal charges in court.

“Since 2021, any time I hear the name Josephine, it reminds me of the pain childless women go through in our Ghanaian society. It always brings tears in my eyes, particularly when I reminisce how the name took the centre stage of the Ghanaian media landscape sometimes ago, following Josephine’s alleged fake pregnancy and kidnapping attempt,”

The above statements were made by Esinam (not her real name), 43, a mother of two. Esinam lives at Nsakina in the Ga West Municipality of the Greater Accra Region. Her eldest child, Emma, 7, and last one, Kwesi, 5, are what Esinam describes as the “greatest treasure I have received from God.”

For her, her children worth more than anything to her.

“They are my source of happiness,” she said, with a smile, pointing at the last child who was playing a game on her (Esinam’s) tablet at their corridor.

“I married very early; I married at 22. However, I gave birth to my first child at age 36. The last one came at 38,” she explained, noting that during the time of her childlessness, it seemed like she was fighting against the world.


“I always thank God for my supportive husband; he never bulged into what some people told him. I don’t want to mention names; but I know what I have gone through all the years I was not giving birth,” Esinam explained.

She explained that at a point when pressure from his husband and her own families became intense, something spoke to her to fake a pregnancy so that she could use that to get an adopted child from the orphanages.

“It was quite funny the kind of thoughts that raced through my mind. I wanted to fake a pregnancy so that I can go and adopt a child from an orphanage home,” she narrated, adding “But I didn’t want any drama too to unfold later in my life, where the mother of the child will show up for it.”

For Esinam, it was only God that helped her to discard such a thought from her mind in spite of the challenges she faced.

“The stigma was too much for me to bear. If you haven’t gone through it before, you wouldn’t understand how it feels when you try to get birth and it’s not coming,” she noted.

For her, apart from the direct and indirect statements that people make to mock you or poke fun of you, “any child at all that you see reminds you of your predicament.”

“When you see little children playing, you wished one of them is yours. So, you keep imaging the unimaginable in your mind all the time. It feels like you are getting insane,” Esinam narrated.

“Our society and cultural norms are not kind with childless couples,” she noted, stressing “If you are not carefully, you may toe the line of Josephine because I nearly considered it in my tough movement.”

For Esinam, “no person in her right senses will fake pregnancy knowing that there wouldn’t be any delivery at the end of the day and society expects us to delivery or give reasons why we didn’t bring home any child after the nine month’s journey of pregnancy.”

The Story of Josephine

On September 16, 2021, Josephine Panyin Mensah, 28, went missing in Takoradi in the Western Region. She was said to be nine months pregnant.

Her disappearance, which was published in both traditional and social media platforms received massive reactions from all stakeholders, including the Ghana Police Service.

People became alarmed over her disappearance. They wondered why anyone would abduct a pregnant woman. The issue trended on many social media platforms. The incident also occurred at a time when three girls had been kidnapped in the same town with many people mounting pressure on the government and the Ghana Police Service to rescue the missing girls, popularly called “The Takoradi Missing Girls.”

However, following the report of Josephine’s disappearance, the Ghana Police Service commenced investigations into the matter, deploying more than 40 Police officers to locate the possible place she might have been kidnaped to. The media also sustained its pressure on the police to find her.

Luckily, on September 21, 2021, at about 0930 hours, the victim, now suspect, Josephine reappeared. She was found in Axim without the pregnancy or any baby. What rather emerged was that she delivered but her captors stole the baby.

When she was found, she was sent her to the Axim Government Hospital for medical attention. It was during the medical examinations that it became public that Josephine was not pregnant when she was supposedly kidnapped.

Police investigations

The police tracked the mobile number that the supposed kidnapers used to call Josephine’s family to demand ransom. Surprisingly, the number was said to have been registered in Josephine’s name. Josephine’s mother and her husband were all arrested in connection with the case.

Following police investigations, it emerged that she was never pregnant, a claim she and the immediate family vehemently disputed. The accusation that she faked the pregnancy even got members of her community angry.

To prove whether she was pregnant or not, a team of specialist obstetrics gynaecologists (OBGs) at the the Effia-Nkwanta Regional Hospital also examined and indicated that Josephine was never pregnant. She was therefore handed over to the police, where they have pressed discharges against her.

The Police in a statement, signed by the then Ag. Director-General, Public Affairs, Assistant Commissioner of Police, Mr Kwesi Ofori, after Josephine’s reappearance, said: “Their findings are that Josephine Panyin Mensah was never pregnant within the period under review following thorough medical examination by the medical doctors at the Axim Government Hospital.

The victim, now a suspect, during interrogation mentioned the European Hospital in Takoradi as the hospital for her antenatal reviews and assessment. However, medical records at the said medical facility suggested that the lady visited the hospital without pregnancy somewhere in October in 2020.

The police in subsequent statements after Josephine’s reappearance said she confessed of having faked her pregnancy.

She is also said to have pleaded with the police not to prosecute her and that she did not know the husband would go and report her fake kidnapping to the police after she managed to conceal her fake pregnancy.

Faking pregnancy

For Esinam, “I felt the public did not sympathise that much with Josephine. It could have happened to anyone. I could have been a victim like her; it is not as simple as how people see it.”

She says since Josephine’s story came out, she had never stopped to think about it.

“I always say that this could have been me. It is not easy for childless couples to live in a society like ours where everyone expects a child right after marriage. If you have not been there before, you might think she was probably crazy or going crazy. But she did what she did to please society,” Esinam noted.

For her, “the pain childless couples go through, particularly the woman, is not something to describe with simple words. It’s a daily trauma you subject yourself to.”

“You can’t imagine seeing people you married before them going to places with their children and sometimes their children running to them when they are having a chat with you or on the phone. It feels like you have failed,” she observed.

According to her, she shed tears when she heard Josephine’s story.

“I shed tears when I heard Josephine’s story; it was a very sad day for me. It reminded me of what I wanted to do. But society was never kind to her,” Esinam noted, adding “If you are not careful, you may judge her wrongly because we think that she behaved in a weird manner.”

Say no to stigmatisation

A clinical Psychologist, Dr Philip Osoji, advises the public against any form of stigmatisation, pointing out that such an act could drive people to act in ways that are highly unexpected.

“People who are faced with childlessness and are trying to get one are already in disparate situation and so they are more likely to accept any intervention that will put their minds at rest,” he said.

In addition, he said, "You see, your subject (Josephine) could have even been influenced by a movie scene; it’s possible."

For Dr Osoji, society must rather empatise with people struggling to conceive, saying “such people really need our support and care; we must not stigmatise childless people.”

"That is why we discourage people in all situations not to stigmatise others—it can have a dire consequences on people's mental health," he noted, pointing out that "We need to support people such as Josephine. They need our help and not our mocking."

For him, childlessness is such a big deal in Africa and "so when someone is going through such a challenge, you don't have to push them to the wall by stigmatising them—we need to desist from behaviours."

Infertility

Infertility is a condition that affects approximately one out of every six couples, according to information on americanpregnancy.org and with female infertility accounting for approximately one-third of all cases.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) states that infertility affects up to 15 per cent of reproductive-aged couples worldwide.

WHO demographic studies from 2004 shows that in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 30 per cent of women aged 25 to 49 suffer from secondary infertility, the failure to conceive after an initial pregnancy.

Health journals describe infertility as not being able to get pregnant after one year of trying (or six months, if a woman is 35 or older.

Similarly, women who can get pregnant but are unable to stay pregnant may also be infertile.

In many Ghanaian communities, infertility is sometimes seen as divine punishment or the result of perceived immoral lifestyle of the woman, with women being most often blamed and stigmatised.

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