The researchers found that more than half of 45- to 49-year-old mothers have experienced the death of a child under age five. Nearly two-thirds have experienced the death of any child, irrespective of age.
Though the child mortality rate has fallen dramatically over time, more than half of the children who die each year live in sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the U.N. Inter-agency Group for Child Mortality Estimation, 3.3 million children died in 2018 in Africa alone.
New research suggests maternal grief is devastatingly 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.
In contrast to traditional measures of infant and child mortality, the study captures the cumulative impact of child loss through a mother’s lifetime.
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.
Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the first-of-its-kind study uses two decades of data from 20 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The researchers found that it is staggeringly common for a woman in sub-Saharan Africa to have lost a child, the study revealed that more than half of 45 to 49-year-old mothers have experienced the death of a child under age five. 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 very high child mortality rates that the global health community typically focuses on, are all these grieving parents that never receive any attention,” said lead author Emily Smith-Greenaway, assistant professor of sociology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “These results increase our recognition of bereavement as itself a public health threat—one that’s unfairly concentrated in low-income regions of the world.”
Their study grew out of the idea that parents everywhere suffer immensely when they outlive their children. While other researchers have examined the effects of child loss on parents in the United States and Europe, very few have quantified the loss felt by mothers in Africa.
“These are factors that we need to consider very carefully as we think about the consequences of stress, of aging,” said Trinitapoli, an associate professor of sociology at UChicago. “Looking at child loss from the perspective of mothers gives us ideas about where interventions might be the most useful, both for improving child health and helping women.”
High rates of childhood, adolescent, and young-adult mortality mean that mothers continue to experience bereavement over time.
“This study tells us the burden of bereavement is much greater than we knew and offers a new perspective on global inequality,” Smith-Greenaway said. “These new indicators can be used to improve current understandings of mortality change, bereavement as a public health threat, and population dynamics.”
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.