Fact Check

Does Oxfam Handbook Advise Against Using the Words 'Mother' and 'Youth'?

In March 2023, the anti-poverty charity released an "Inclusive Language Guide."

Published Mar 17, 2023

A language handbook published by the anti-poverty charity Oxfam advises people to avoid use of the words "mother" and "youth."

Viral memes displaying a portion of this guide cut out the context making it clear that "mother" and "father" can be used if that is the preference of the parents. This guide does not, as other memes claim, ban or abolish the use of these words.

On March 13, 2023, the anti-poverty charity consortium Oxfam published an "Inclusive Language Guide" to its website. In describing its purpose, Oxfam wrote:

At Oxfam it is important that the language we use reflects our values and work. Language has the power to reinforce or deconstruct systems of power that maintain poverty, inequality and suffering. Choices in language can empower us to reframe issues, rewrite tired stories, challenge problematic ideas and build a radically better future based on a survivor-centred, intersectional, anti-racist and feminist vision of equality.

Aspects of this handbook went viral, particularly guidance around the use of the word "mother" and "youth." 

It is true that the handbook suggests avoiding these words. It is also true that it calls English the "language of a colonizing nation" in its introduction:

We … recognize that this guide has its origin in English, the language of a colonizing nation. We acknowledge the Anglo-supremacy of the sector as part of its coloniality. This guide aims to support people who have to work and communicate in the English language as part of this colonial legacy. However, we recognize that the dominance of English is one of the key issues that must be addressed in order to decolonise our ways of working and shift power.

With respect to the words "mother" and "father," the goal is to "avoid assuming the adoption of gendered roles by transgender parents." Such language, the guide clarifies, is fine if a parent's preference is known: 

If trans parents have a preferred specified gender role, such as 'mother' or 'father', this should be respected. If unsure, it is more inclusive to use 'parent'.

The hand book, as well, cautions against use of the words "elderly, seniors, [and] youth." As explained in the handbook, the terms "people over/under X, elderly people, older people, [and] young people" are preferred. 

The goal, according to the guide, is to, "Write about older people in a way that affords respect and dignity, and avoid phrases which are homogenizing or patronising. The same goes for writing about young people."

Some viral tweets have asserted that this guidance document bans or abolishes use of these words. This is not true. As Oxfam explained in a statement to the Telegraph, the guide is not meant to be prescriptive or enforce specific rules:

This guide is primarily sector-focused, it is not prescriptive but helps authors communicate in a way that is respectful to the diverse range of people with whom we work. We are proud of using inclusive language; we won't succeed in tackling poverty by excluding marginalised groups.

We are disappointed that some people have decided to misrepresent the advice offered in the guide by cropping the document to remove the clear statement that authors should respect the desire of individuals who want to be described as a mother or father.

Because, however, the guide does explicitly suggest "avoid[ing]" the terms mother and youth, we rate this claim as "True."


"Inclusive Language Guide." Oxfam Policy & Practice, https://policy-practice.oxfam.org/resources/inclusive-language-guide-621487/. Accessed 17 Mar. 2023.

Swerling, Gabriella. "Don't Say Mother or Father as It Could Offend, Oxfam Tells Staff." The Telegraph, 16 Mar. 2023. www.telegraph.co.uk, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2023/03/16/oxfam-avoid-words-mother-father-gender-woke/.

Alex Kasprak is an investigative journalist and science writer reporting on scientific misinformation, online fraud, and financial crime.