If you’re in the UK and seeking NHS funding to help with the costs of IVF and other assisted fertility procedures, then you’ll know that it can be a frustrating and disheartening postcode lottery
But if you’re a woman of colour, then you can also face missing out on help to have or extend your family. Shockingly, and regardless of whether you’re seeking funding, you’re covered by health insurance or you’re self-paying, in the UK, black people are more than 25 times less likely to seek fertility treatments than white people.
Noni Martins, who lives in Merseyside after moving from Zimbabwe in her teens, has spoken to Elle magazine to highlight the problem of infertility going unmentioned in black communities.
She says that the music was still playing at her wedding to husband Busayo when the wedding guests started taking about the couple having babies.
Noni’s culture has the expectation that her role was to be “a good wife and a good mother”.
But now, Noni, aged 32 and Busayo, aged 35, are one of a disproportionately small number of Black British couples now seeking fertility treatments.
Noni told Elle, “The reality is that, as a Black woman, to accept what I now know to be infertility is to have your womanhood invalidated. As an informed millennial I have taught myself that is not the case but the journey to becoming a mother that I was raised on was linear – a good girl gets married and gives her husband a family. Deviations from that are taboo.”
In the UK, stats from the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority show that between 2014 and 2018, 189,356 White British people underwent IVF
This is compared to just 5,943 people of Black African heritage and 1,141 of Black Caribbean descent. Research also shows that people of colour tend to start treatment two years later on average, and that can have a devastating impact on fertility.
The stats show a similar trend when comparing the numbers of people of Indian and Pakistani heritage in the UK. They’re also reflected in the incredibly low numbers of Black egg and sperm donors.
“There is no NHS equivalent in Zimbabwe; I grew up completely removed from the idea that a doctor could help you to have a baby. As Africans, we talked about fertility but never infertility. I didn’t hear conversations around IVF or adoption. I heard stories about married women being sent back to their families when they couldn’t bear children,” says Noni.
This sad reality has meant that the HFEA has urged medical professionals and community leaders here in the UK to address the “health, socioeconomic and cultural factors that underly the ethnic infertility gap”.
Despite one in seven British couples experiencing difficulty conceiving, Noni only discovered that she could get medical help by accident. In 2019 she was admitted to hospital with unrelated pelvic pain, when a doctor asked her if she could be pregnant.
When Noni explained that she’d been trying to become pregnant for years, the doctor suggested tests for the couple.
Busayo had been on kidney dialysis for more than ten years, which, unbeknownst to the couple, had resulted in a low sperm count.
“It never occurred to me that the reason we couldn’t get pregnant was male factor infertility. I had spent years feeling shame and anguish towards my own body because of a false belief, among Black Africans, that infertility issues stem only from the woman. White girls are taught about the power of their voice from a young age but mine was a more patriarchal upbringing. I had to check and unlearn so many things I’d held on to.?
As a result, Noni is speaking out about the “culture of silence and stigma”.
“Culturally, family matters stay within the home. People asked if I had my husband’s permission to speak about our struggle. In my immediate family, the word “taboo” came up many times. That was very hard to hear in response to something so real to me.”
“A cousin told me, “I’m sure your husband still loves you.” When another relative got pregnant, no one told me. I questioned why they couldn’t have that conversation with me.”
Noni is currently undergoing her third IVF cycle and remains positive
“Infertility is difficult and lonely. As long as these issues stay hidden, the harder it remains to overcome added stigma. When I started blogging, I thought I’d be a lone voice; the connections I have made with other Black women on social media tell me I am not.”
“While experts must work to improve our chances of parenthood, we have to reach into our communities and have uncomfortable discussions. These conversations start small but our voices are growing.”
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