KEN180211TO001BUNGOMA, Kenya – As she prepared lunch for her children outside her house in Mukhuma village in western Kenya, Joyce Nafula cried as she recalled the pain and regret she experienced after failing to give birth to baby boys as per husband’s expectations.

“I’m very sad,” said Nafula, 49, a mother of six girls. “I lost my husband because I only gave birth to girls. People laughed at me. They told me I was not a real woman. I was rejected and abused by elders and even friends.”

In 2009, Nafula said her husband married a second wife who could bear him sons after he realized she could not give birth to another child because she had reached menopause.

The new wife gave birth to a baby boy, bringing an end to her 20-year-old marriage. “My husband divorced me and told me to go away,” she said. “When I refused to leave, he started beating me and saying I was a cursed woman because I couldn’t bear him sons.”

Her husband abandoned her and their daughters and moved into a new home with his new, she said.

Nafula is one among thousands of women in western Kenya and across Africa who are face stigma for bearing daughters rather than sons. In this part of East Africa, baby girls are valued less than baby boys.

Traditional culture here dictates that woman must give birth to a male child so that he can be his father’s heir, said Geofrey Baraza, a loval elder. When a woman gives birth to a baby boy she is celebrated and becomes a “real woman” recognized by the community, he added.

“We are not despising baby girls,” said Baraza, 70. “But these girls will one time leave their homes and get married elsewhere. They will never stay at their parents homes to take care of the remaining family members. That’s the reason we demand that a woman gives birth to a son to take care of the home.”

Women who fail to fulfill their duties face ostracism.

“If a woman gives birth to only daughters, we consider that home being barren and cursed,” Baraza said. “A man is advised to get a son with another woman so that the son can continue with his father’s generation when he dies.”

The live up to the pressure, some women are now visiting witch doctors who might employ their supernatural powers to cleanse their wombs and produce baby boys.

“I’m searching for a baby boy,” said Cyntia Wanyonyi, 38, a mother of five girls who visited a witch doctor recently without success. “I will continue to give birth until I get son. That’s the dream I have as a mother because I don’t want to lose my husband.”

Aure Nyongesa, a public health official in the region, said women who are pregnant become immediately depressed after the ultrasound shows they are carrying girls and not boys as they had expected.

“Most women begin to reject the children before even they are born,” he said. “In some instances they even abort hoping to get a baby boy when they conceive again. That’s the problem we have observed from pregnant women when they come for regular checking during pregnancy.”

But the tide is slowly turning. Religious leaders in western Kenya have been sensitizing the locals, urging them to understand that the child comes from God and no human being has power to determine the baby’s sexes.

Bishop Philip Anyolo, the chairman of the Kenya Conference of Catholic Bishops, blamed the culture for selling the idea of boys being superior to girls.

“This is very unfortunate. People should understand that a woman and a man have equal dignity before God,” he said. “They are all made in God's image and likeness. So they are all equal before God and no one can do without the other. They are complementary.”

However, Bishop Anyolo said the church will continue to preach the violence against women, saying it was time for elders and locals to change their ways of thinking.

“We should not despise our girls,” said Anyolo. “They are as equal as our sons. The gospel of Christ should help us change the way we think and speak about our children. We should celebrate our daughters and sons, and treat them equally. They are blessing from God.”

Wanyonyi prayed that the norms changed soon.

“I wish the message reaches our people to change the way they think and stop to discriminate women who cannot give birth to baby boys,” she said. “I think this is going to save our marriages.”

Nafula agreed.

“People in our community should understand that we have no power over children sexes,” she said. “They need to give us time to love our daughters as they equally love their sons. We are tired of leaving- under threats from our husbands and the community.”

Photo: School girls in western Kenya playing. Religious leaders in western Kenya have been sensitizing the locals, urging them to understand that the child comes from God and no human being has power to determine the baby’s sexes.
Credit: Tonny Onyulo/ ARA Network Inc. (02/28/18)

Story/photo published date: 11/16/18

A version of this story was published in Religion News Service.