By Masimba Biriwasha| AfroFutures.com Global Editor-At-Large
When Maidei Tavaziva (30) consciously chose not to conceive for approximately five years after getting married, she experienced a barrage of salient remarks from her relatives suggesting that time was up for her to reproduce.
“My aunts, my grandmother and my other relatives started telling me that I needed to have a baby. I suspect that my husband’s relatives were also talking behind my back. My grandmother would say that she now wanted a grandchild. I’m definitely convinced that in Zimbabwe, there is social pressure to produce a baby once you enter into marriage,” said Taziva.
Tavaziva added that though some of the comments appeared innocuous on the surface, the intent was clearly to influence her to get pregnant.
“Of course, I knew that what my relatives wanted was for me to get pregnant and deliver a healthy infant, preferably a boy, so that I could secure my relationship with my husband, and increase my status,” she said.
Unlike most women, Taziva said that she did not bow down to the pressure; she stuck to her guts not to have a child early in marriage because she needed to first complete her educational studies without the pressure of having to look after a baby.
According to traditional norms in Zimbabwe, a woman has a responsibility to expand the clan of her husband once she is married. Babies are often regarded as sealers of marriage – but not just any baby – women are generally expected to give birth to a baby boy who will carry the family name and inheritance.
“A woman who has a first-born child who is a girl is not as revered as one with a boy. So women are under pressure to produce baby boys,” said Betty Makoni, Global Advocate for CNN for protecting the powerless and CEO of Girl Child Network Worldwide.
However, a woman who has a child outside of a recognized and socially sanctioned sexual union faces the risk of being ostracized by family, the community and religious organizations to which she belongs.
“Girls who fall pregnant force themselves into marriage or are forced into marriage. Many women are married because they’ve fallen pregnant,” said Makoni.
For most newly married women in the country, the desire to fulfill social expectations to conceive immediately after marriage supersedes efforts to engage in proper family planning.
“I have friends whom after marriage have experienced pregnancy check-ups from their relatives. They will start to check the skin tone, whether you have nausea and at family gatherings they expect to see you with a bump. Society still expects women to follow the conventional trajectory of dating, marriage, and then children,” said Buhle Makamanzi, a development sector consultant and mother of three.
“This is not to say that motherhood is a bad thing; for me, there is nothing in this world as fulfilling as being a mother – your heart certainly grows bigger.”
According to a Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Educational Trust (WLSA) study titled “Pregnancy and childhood: Joy or despair?” women’s sexual lives are mediated by those of men.
“Women must conform to male strictures or so they believe. Thus, if their sexuality is perceived as a reproductive resource by males and is controlled by male norms and values, women who are dependent on males will seek to conform to those norms and values,” states the study.
But as Tavaziva revealed the pressure on her came mainly from her female relatives, and that may have been no coincidence. According to the WLSA report, women often use their reproductive capacity to support their entitlement to benefit from resources held by men.
“This reliance on reproductive roles means that women are obliged to fill that role and produce children to secure their membership in their marital families and build up status that secures their entitlements in that family in their later years,” says the study.
The study also noted that women’s sexual integrity may be demanded and enforced by their natal families to maximize their opportunities for successful marriages.
Makamanzi commented that as women become more independent-minded due to increased access to educational opportunities, social expectations about the timing of pregnancy within marriage are beginning to shift, albeit, slowly.
“One major factor is whether the husband succumbs to pressure, if he does, then as a woman, you’re forced to try for a baby even if it wasn’t your plan. With the buzz on women’s empowerment, some women are beginning to think outside this box. However, pregnancy borne out of societal and family pressure is still rampant even among the so-called career women,” said Makamanzi.