There is increasing recognition in the social science literature that infertility is a devastating problem for women, particularly in the high-fertility context of sub-Saharan Africa. Regardless of the medical causes of infertility, women in most African societies suffer grief, social stigma, ostracism and often serious economic deprivation. A previous article demonstrated that these hardships vary across different cultural contexts, given that institutional settings influence the meanings and consequences of the condition. In that paper the focus was on these settings in two southern Nigerian communities and a number of particularly salient differences between the two communities in their impact on community responses to infertile women were documented.

The communities are Amakiri (pseudonym), an Ijo community in Delta State, and Lopon (pseudonym), a Yakurr community in Cross River State. The major difference between these localities is that descent in Amakiri is patrilineal, traced through the father’s side, whereas in Lopon it is double unilineal, traced through both parents’ sides. In addition, high levels of infertility are historically documented in Lopon , whereas infertility levels in Amakiri are relatively low . The findings indicated that based on these differences, responses to infertility were considerably more negative in Amakiri than in Lopon.

In the current paper, the focus is first on the experiences of individual women with infertility, derived from in-depth life history interviews in each community, and second, using survey data, these life experiences are compared with those of their fertile counterparts. Specifically, how the differences in the lineage structure in the two communities impact on the childless and subfertile women’s experiences in their marital and interpersonal relations and socioeconomic activities are documented.

In this way, the study distinguishes between women who are childless and those with subfertility and compares them with high-fertility women. It is hypothesized that the experiences of women who are childless or have subfertility in Lopon will be less negative than of those in Amakiri, given the differences in the institutional settings and the historically evolved symbolic meaning of the infertile condition.