Only then will she eat the leftovers

The New York Times reports on a new study that finds Indian women are far more undernourished and underweight than women even in poorer countries.

You know what this results in? Undernourished babies, lots of whom die in or out of the uterus.

That’s the thing about hating women – it has some knock-on effects that even non-women don’t want. It’s hard to get the amount of hatred that should be directed at women exactly right.

The poor [bad] health of children in India, even after decades of robust economic growth, is one of the world’s most perplexing public health issues.

A child raised in India is far more likely to be malnourished than one from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe or Somalia, the world’s poorest countries. Poor [bad] sanitation and a growing tide of drug-resistant infections also affect nutrition.

[Aside: it’s bad enough using “poor” as a pointless euphemism for “bad” even when it’s not confusing, but in an article that’s directly about poverty and an array of bad things, then it’s inexcusable. Poor countries have bad outcomes. Poor countries have bad sanitation and bad health in children. Let’s be clear about these things.]

But an important factor is the relatively poor [bad] health of young Indian women. More than 90 percent of adolescent Indian girlsare anemic, a crucial measure of poor [bad] nutrition. And while researchers have long known that Indian mothers tend to be less healthy than their African counterparts, a new study published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates that the disparity is far worse than previously believed.

By analyzing census data, Diane Coffey of Princeton University found that 42 percent of Indian mothers are underweight. The figure for sub-Saharan Africa is 16.5 percent.

And why is this? More hatred.

The reasons for Indian mothers’ relatively poor health are many, including a culture that discriminates against them. Sex differences in education, employment outside the home, and infant mortality are all greater in India than in Africa.

“In India, young newly married women are at the bottom of household hierarchies,” Ms. Coffey said. “So at the same time that Indian women become pregnant, they are often expected to keep quiet, work hard and eat little.”

They’re supposed to be like a car that gets exceptionally good gas mileage.

It also has to do with bad sanitation and sewage disposal.

Dr. Shella Duggal, Juhi’s doctor at the mobile clinic, said that almost every pregnant woman she treats in her visits to Delhi’s slums is severely anemic. Parasites, spread by poor [BAD] sanitation and dirty water, are a crucial reason, she said.

“So the first thing we do is deworm them and give them iron supplements,” Dr. Duggal said. “And then I tell them to eat.”

It is a prescription many of her patients find difficult to carry out, she said.

“These mothers are the last persons in their families to have food,” Dr. Duggal said. “First, she feeds the husband and then the kids, and only then will she eat the leftovers.”

It’s a bad arrangement.


  1. governmentman says

    Please consult any dictionary – or, preferably, many dictionaries – for the word “poor”.

    I’m just generally amazed that someone who writes cannot have encountered this use of the word poor in innumerable other sources.

  2. says

    Of course I’ve encountered it. I’ve encountered it far too much; that was my point. I think it’s a stupid substitute for “bad” and should be avoided, and triply so when the subject matter is itself poverty. I think its repeated use to mean “bad” in this article is both obfuscatory and ambiguous.

  3. A Masked Avenger says

    #1, if I understand you correctly, you’re an idiot.

    I was going to comment that “poor,” in my experience, means “lacking” rather than “bad.” Poor people lack money; poor sanitation is below standard. So the nit I’m picking is that I’d have suggested the writer use “inadequate”…

    Except that you’re still right, because “inadequate” is a mushy euphemism. It’s bad, really bad, and calling it something else candy-coats it. “A trifle lacking” is how a British aristocrat might describe a poor person’s luncheon of boiled shoe.

  4. quixote says

    “You know what this results in? Undernourished babies, lots of whom die in or out of the uterus. … It’s hard to get the amount of hatred that should be directed at women exactly right.”

    I had to laugh in a gallows humor-y way. Too, too, too true.

  5. says


    It’s a way of saying “not good enough” or “not up to the mark” – which is fine if you’re a schoolteacher, especially of very young children, or if you’re a judge on Chopped. But it’s become a permanent, everywhere substitute for “bad” even when there is no person to get hurt feelings. That’s absurd, and when it becomes a veil for truly BAD arrangements, it stinks.

  6. Arkady says

    Slight tangent into the science of iron metabolism: iron uptake is affected by inflammation, quite a few bacteria and parasites need iron to grow so as a defence mechanism the body deliberately produces a hormone called hepcidin to block iron uptake from the gut, prioritising fighting off infection in the short term rather than the long term anaemia. Hepcidin’s a relatively recent discovery, hopefully explaining why iron supplementation hasn’t had great success rates at reducing anaemia in developing countries.

    If the women have worse anaemia than their children, and at worse rates than countries with comparable infectious disease prevalence, that’s very likely to be malnourishment and not any of the confounding factors seen with iron metabolism. I remember Avicenna writing something along these lines about the wives getting the least amount of food in India (or maybe ‘quoting’ someone else, still annoyed at him about the plagiarism).

  7. johnthedrunkard says

    Years back, a reporter kidnapped in Iraq wrote about her treatment:

    She was, of course, hijabbed and confined with the female property of her captors. They only ate standing in the kitchen, cadging leftovers from the plates of the men they had served.

    The women who supervised couldn’t believe she didn’t want to convert after seeing their pure and noble way of life.

  8. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    ““First, she feeds the husband and then the kids, and only then will she eat the leftovers.””

    Husband, other adult males, oldest son’s male children, other male children, her mother-in-law, then her female children, then herself.

  9. governmentman says

    You keep calling “poor” a euphemism, and acting as though it has just recently taken off as a substitute for “bad”. That’s not right. It is effectively a synonym for “bad” and it has been for literally hundreds of years. If you don’t like the word then that’s fine, and you’re free not to use it and to complain about it. But it is not obfuscatory or ambiguous. It is a perfectly acceptable and standard use. I had no trouble understanding the article, and I seriously doubt that you did either.
    If you’re not trying to do anything more than emote, then I have nothing to say. It sounds to me like you’re saying this author is wrong for using “poor” in this way, and that this is a clearly incorrect style choice. But it’s not. It’s totally in line with the common use and dictionary definition of this word.

  10. nrdo says

    I have to agree that while it’s fine to push for a change in that usage of the word “poor” through one’s own writing, it’s a bit distracting to edit the NYT writer’s text like that when they clearly meant for the focus to be on the abuse and deprivation that these women suffer.

  11. says

    Jeezis. No I don’t. I said I think it’s a stupid substitute for “bad” and should be avoided, and triply so when the subject matter is itself poverty, and I think its repeated use to mean “bad” in this article is both obfuscatory and ambiguous. That’s not the same as saying “it’s wrong” and “it’s clearly incorrect.” I’m obviously expressing an opinion about word usage, because I think it has moral and political implications that I think matter. That’s not the same as simply emoting, with no reasons given.

    Also, you’re still missing my point, which seems odd, since god knows it’s simple. I didn’t say and didn’t mean it’s hard to understand.

    You’re right though that I think its use is increasing. I’m not a linguist, and I don’t know for sure, but that’s my impression. I don’t think you know for sure that I’m wrong about that, either.

  12. brucegorton says

    We have an article about how 42 percent of Indian mothers are underweight, in part due to the fact that they are the last family members who get to eat, resulting in high infant and child mortality rates, and the thread is mostly an argument over Benson’s feelings about whether one should use the word poor or bad.

  13. says

    And the reason I brought it up in this particular context is to say that the way Indian women are treated is BAD: bad bad very bad. My core point was to say don’t understate the badness of bad things, and this thing is very very very bad.

    Point-missers not helping. Point-missers doing a poor job of helping.

  14. nrdo says

    Of course it’s a minor style issue, but I think it’s fair to point out that in spite of Ophelia’s well-meaning position regarding the usage of “poor”, a writer might be justifiably annoyed when their text is marked up with unnecessary changes.

    Regarding the actual topic, what I found “linguistically” shocking is how the doctors caring for these people use language that you hear from people rescuing abused animals. This illustrates how religious and cultural traditions that set women apart are really not “uplifting” or “sanctifying” in the way that liberal believers spin them. They’re inherently about control and exploitation.

  15. Deepak Shetty says

    Yes this is part of India’s (anot just india obviously) culture and tradition
    The woman of the house must do the cooking and is expected to serve all the family members (Even if she is working). That arrangement obviously means she eats last and has to eat whats left . If you are in a poor family that means smaller portions – But even if you are middle class or higher since nothing should go waste , she has to eat whatever might have been left 2-3 days ago(so it doesnt spoil) rather than whatever is freshly made.
    Its a fucked up system.

    Offtopic – One of the things that attracted me to the “gnu movement” was that these small day to day things that have such a tremendous impact on peoples lives were atleast brought up and condemned. Its sad that a part of the same movement now feels the only topics worth prioritizing are conflicts in the middle east involving barbaric acts committed by Muslims.

  16. nrdo says

    @ Deepak Shetty 17;

    I agree. Poverty reveals how patriarchal societies are actually tend to sacrifice women and children when resources are limited. The author’s previous article is about how children also bear the brunt of the system.

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