Living with the mother-in-law restricts a woman’s mobility and ability to form social connections outside the household, reducing her access to health services and family planning methods, according to a working paper that has analysed data on married women in Jaunpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

The negative influence of the mother-in-law is stronger if she disagrees with the daughter-in-law’s view of fertility and how many children she wishes to have, the study found after analysing primary data from 698 households from 28 villages that had married women in the 18-30 age group.

Women have few peers outside their family as a direct result of living with their mothers-in-law, show the preliminary results from the ongoing two-year study, to be presented at the 2020 Annual Meeting of the Allied Social Sciences Association in January.

“We started to look at why women have such few connections and one of the variables we started looking at was whether they lived with their mothers-in-law,” said S Anukriti, assistant professor of economics at Boston College and the co-author of the study.

This is one of the first studies of its kind, the researchers said. Previous research has focussed on the impact on family planning when spouses disagree. It is part of a bigger project called Jaunpur Social Network Study.

Women isolated

The research found that apart from regular interactions with their husbands and mothers-in-law, married women were quite isolated. A married woman in Jaunpur, on an average, interacted with only 1.6 individuals outside her family circle. An average American woman has up to 7.9 close friends, according to a Gallup survey done over a decade ago.

When it came to private matters like reproductive health, fertility and family planning, the women spoke to even fewer peers – just 0.7 individuals on an average.

More than one in three women or nearly 36% had no close peers in Jaunpur. One in every five women or roughly 22% had no close peers at all. The few peers that women did have were not just of the same religion but also the same caste and, in 75% of the cases, were from similar economic backgrounds. This suggested a complete homogeneity in the peer network.

Overall women experienced severe mobility restrictions with only 14% being allowed to visit a health facility and 12% to visit family and friends.

The study then looked at women who lived with their mothers-in-law and found that they had 18% fewer peers within the village with whom they discussed issues related to health, fertility and family planning, compared to women who did not live with their mothers-in-law. They also had 36% fewer peers outside the home.

Reproductive choices

The researchers then asked: Why does a mother-in-law control the daughter-in-law’s social connections? The findings suggested that the mother-in-law’s behaviour is driven primarily by her preference for a male grandchild, or the number of kids she wants the daughter-in-law to bear.

A woman living with her mother-in-law is 50% less likely to visit a family planning clinic and 12.5% less likely to use modern contraceptives. If a woman meets fewer people outside the home, she is less likely to know how acceptable society considers family planning methods to be, or to have support to go to the clinic. Contact with peers also helped improve a woman’s self-confidence and her aspirations, the study found.

“It seems to suggest to us that the mother-in-law is basically trying to prevent you from connecting with outside peers because she doesn’t want you to be influenced in terms of adopting family planning methods or changing your fertility, which may be different from what [she] wants for you,” said Anukriti.

Experts with an understanding of Indian society’s deep entrenched patriarchy believe that while blaming the mother-in-law seems obvious, she herself is a victim of patriarchy. “Within a patriarchal society women gain access to power and privilege only as they age. And that power and privilege comes only if they have given birth to children,” said Lakshmi Lingam, professor at the School of Media and Cultural Studies at TISS, Mumbai, who studies gender issues in development and macroeconomic policies. “Further, only if they have given birth to male children. It is a layered privilege.”

This is also common in many South Asian countries such as Pakistan and Nepal.

Policewomen of patriarchy

The term “mummyji effect” was first popularised by The Economist in a 2013 article on Indian mothers-in-law. Their role in perpetrating violence against daughters-in-law is well documented.

“If a mother-in-law’s identity and achievements come only from the son and their husband then she essentially has to compete with the daughter-in-law,” said Lingam, calling mothers-in-law the policewomen of patriarchy. “[In a] scenario where you have always been able to move upwards through a lot of subjugation and submission, you expect only that from your daughter-in-law.”

Then what explains a mother-in-law’s preference for a son? “The wishes of the family is what they are carrying on but they also treasure those boys,” said Lingam, underscoring that mothers-in-law have been able to establish their status in the family by giving birth to the sons and they want that to continue.

Key takeaways

By demonstrating that the mother-in-law is the gatekeeper to information about health services, future policies could focus on roping mothers-in-law into family planning, immunisation, and child and maternal health outreach efforts.

“If the government is trying to promote family planning or immunisation, then it is not sufficient to target the couple, for example. You will also have to take into account the household structure and target the mother-in-law,” said Anukriti.

The presence or absence of the father-in-law in the household did not have any impact on the daughter-in-law’s mobility and the size of her social circle. While these results could also be true for other countries in the Indian subcontinent, the paper suggested future studies on the role of other family members in determining a woman’s autonomy.

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.