A too-common horror for mothers in sub-Saharan Africa: Death of their children

But what about the mothers they leave behind? New research suggests maternal grief is all too common among women in sub-Saharan Africa.

Sociologists Emily Smith-Greenaway and Jenny Trinitapoli wondered how many parents in sub-Saharan Africa have lost children. So they turned to demographic data collected from mothers in countries in the region with the highest rates of child mortality.

They used the data to calculate the maternal cumulative measure of offspring mortality — how many women per 1,000 have had children die — for a variety of age groups.

The researchers found that it is staggeringly common for a woman in sub-Saharan Africa to have lost a child. Between a quarter and a half of mothers in the countries studied lost a child during their lifetimes. More than 20 percent had lost a child younger than 5. And in Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Nigeria, Rwanda and Uganda, up to 1 in 5 mothers lost two children.

“In the shadows of the high child mortality rates are millions of grieving mothers who bear the personal, social and marital costs of a child’s death,” they write for The Conversation. They point to a “bereavement burden” that affects what women worry about, how they make decisions and how healthy they are.

The research suggests that child mortality figures don’t go far enough to illustrate the impact of those deaths. Each child leaves behind parents whose future decisions and existence are affected by what they’ve lost.

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