Last week’s worst headline award goes to…

Study blames mums for Afghan child mortality

Seriously? The article tells us:

High child mortality rates in conservative Afghanistan are linked not just to war but to mothers being uneducated and having little or no say when their children need medical help, a study has found.

And according to the headline, this is somehow the mothers’ fault?

We can give them the benefit of the doubt here, and assume that the intention was not to actually lay the blame at the mothers’ feet, but the impression that the headline gives is certainly disturbing. The words we use can be pretty important in how we understand meaning; consider how this would have sounded if the headline was something like: “Study blames oppression of women for child mortality” or “Study blames gender inequity for child deaths.”

The final quote is also problematic. The researchers say that:

The poor economic and educational status of these women, and their overall immaturity caused by a lack of learning opportunities may have resulted in difficulties in preventing illness in their children.

Again, can’t we broaden the responsibility to pin this on overall social relations (compounded by war and occupation), rather than on the women themselves? Of course, the “Afghan-men-are-inherently-oppressive” narrative wouldn’t be especially helpful either, but when we focus on the individual mothers as the reason for their children being sick, we’re not really getting anywhere near the root of the problem. (Not to mention how pretentious the word “immaturity” sounds here.)

What do you think? Am I making too big a deal of the way that this is phrased?

  • Kawthar

    I think your reaction is warranted – the article was poorly phrased.

    Strange…the study actually mentioned family behaviour jeopardizing the health of children.

    I did a quick scan of the study and it seems the immaturity comment was made in relation to child brides.

    Perhaps I’m wrong, but “poorly researched” can also be added to the faults of the article.

  • Extiinct

    Not at all. I was infuriated when I read the headline and the paragraph you quoted from the article. Goes to show that the only thing the media is interested in is selling copy. And in order to do that, they’re willing to miscontrue facts accordingly.

  • Extiinct


  • emmaculate

    I don’t think you are making too big a deal. The article is bathed in a barely-hidden agenda. Take the first seven words:

    “High child mortality rates in conservative Afghanistan…”

    What is “conservative Afghanistan”? Is it separate from “liberal Afghanistan”?

    The use of “child mortality rates” rather than “baby deaths” signifies that this information comes from an incontestably serious, objective, professional, expert (and Western) source. Contrast it with the colloquial “mums” in the headline: locals, non-professionals in need of (expert, Western) “help”, which is presumably why “conservative Afghanistan” breeds (stay-at-home) mothers, rather than giving them the “opportunities” to become authors of an important “study”.

    Also, “high…rates” indicates a comparative approach to the article (and the study) from the very first word – a comparison in which the luckless Afghans are unlikely to come out on top.

    We thus identify the country’s illness – its deviance from the norm – from the get-go: all that remains is to clarify the cause (cultural and economic backwardness, plus war) and dangle a solution (“help” – from you, dear reader, against that very backwardness).


  • Mel

    Not at all–it definitely implies that the women just need to step up and be educated, without sufficiently critiquing the larger social structures responsible for their situation.

  • dawudwalid

    You’re right on; this story uses the same ole’ lame regurgitated frame of the uneducated, backwards Muslim woman.

    Nevermind not stressing that war torn countries normally have poor access to health care.


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  • Krista

    Thanks everyone for the comments – glad to hear I wasn’t just overanalysing.

    emmaculate – good points on the implications of all of this. If problem=conservative=backwards, then of course that paves the way for supposedly benevolent, liberated westerners to come rightt in to help.

    Amazing how the language of supposedly “objective” reporting about a “scientific” survey can be so loaded!

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