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Saas, Bahu and Social Networks: How a Mother-in-law Influences a Rural Indian Woman’s Personal and Family Well-being

News18 creative by Mir Suhail.

News18 creative by Mir Suhail.

A working paper, ‘Curse of the Mummy-ji’, based on a study of 671 participants from Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur, spotlights the challenges faced by women in the hinterland in forming social connections that can help them through issues like fertility and family planning.

New Delhi: While most young women in urban India enjoy greater opportunities these days to form and benefit from social connections created online as well as offline, a study suggests many of their rural counterparts are not so fortunate. And the blame could, in many cases, lie with the mother-in-law.

The working paper ‘Curse of the Mummy-ji: The Influence of Mothers-in-Law on Women’s Social Networks, Mobility, and Reproductive Health in India’ attempts to throw light on the challenges faced by women in rural India in stitching together social connections that can help them understand and navigate intimate yet crucial issues like fertility and family planning.

It has some astonishing findings and numbers to show how crucial the role of social bonds is for women to ensure personal and family well-being. A working paper is a preliminary scientific or technical paper that is often released by authors to share ideas about a topic or to prompt feedback before submitting to a peer-reviewed conference or academic journal.

The research team comprises S Anukriti (Boston College), Catalina Herrera-Almanza (Northeastern University), Mahesh Karra (Boston University), and Praveen Pathak (Delhi University).

News18 spoke to the authors of the working paper on the key findings, their impact on the life of a rural Indian woman as well as her household, and how this could be a guide for policymakers.

What is the ‘Curse of the Mummy-ji’?

The term was earlier used in an Economist article in 2013 to portray the battles in Indian households over who controls family life. It has returned in 2019 because of the work of this clutch of researchers surveying Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district with the objective to “characterize young married women’s social networks in rural India”, and to “analyze how inter-generational power dynamics within the household affect their network formation”.

The team’s working paper describes the mother-in-law’s influence on a woman’s social mobility and networking, which is restrictive in nature and adversely impacts her decisions on family planning and health.

“Women in our sample are quite isolated,” said the authors. They told News18 that the team collected primary data on the social networks of 671 married women in the 18-30 age group in Jaunpur, in 2018. Based on this sample, the researchers have come up with key findings that spotlight rural women.

Speaking about the findings, they discussed the role of social networking on women’s health and family planning. The key findings are: “Besides her husband and mother-in-law (MIL), an average woman interacts with 1.6 individuals in her district about issues that are important to her and with 0.7 individuals in her district about more private matters like reproductive health, fertility, and family planning (close peers). Nearly 36% of women in our sample have no close peers in their district and 22% have no close peers anywhere.”

Secondly, “The mobility restrictions experienced by these women are severe—only 14% of the women are allowed to go alone to a health facility and only 12% are permitted to visit the homes of friends or relatives in their village by themselves.”

Thirdly, “Co-residence with MIL significantly restricts a woman's ability to form connections with individuals outside the home. A woman who lives with her MIL has 36% fewer peers outside the home in her village with whom she interacts about issues related to health, fertility, and family planning.”

The researchers say these restrictions are mainly motivated by the misalignment of fertility preferences between the mother-in-law and the daughter-in-law. “The MIL restricts her DIL’s social network by not permitting her to visit places outside the home alone, in an attempt to control the DIL’s fertility and family planning behavior.”

Thus, the mother-in-law’s restrictive behaviour is ultimately driven by her preferences and attitudes about fertility and family planning, the study suggests.

Fourthly, “The restrictions that are imposed by the MIL on her DIL’s access to social networks have significant detrimental impacts on the DIL. Living with the MIL decreases a woman’s likelihood of visiting a family planning clinic by 50%, relative to women who do not live with the MIL. Similarly, living with a MIL reduces a woman’s likelihood of using modern contraceptive methods by 12.5%.”

The fieldwork for this study was primarily supported by a Northeastern University tier-1 grant with supplemental funding from the Human Capital Initiative at the Boston University Global Development Policy Center.

Impact of MIL’s restrictions on DIL’s health

According to the World Health Organization, in 2018, “214 million women of reproductive age in developing countries who want to avoid pregnancy are not using a modern contraceptive method.” The authors said that women who have fewer peers outside the home are less likely to visit family planning clinics and use modern contraceptive methods. “Outside connections influence women’s beliefs about family planning use in their community and help the women overcome the physical mobility restrictions that are imposed by the MIL,” they added.

Women on the receiving end of the gatekeeper mother-in-law require future interventions, the researchers said. “The interventions that aim to benefit from addressing the gatekeeper-role of the MIL into their targeting strategies, or by directly targeting the MIL in a joint family to inform her about the benefits of family planning and reproductive health services,” they said in the email.

More generally, their paper suggests that policies and programmes would need to factor in the role that these other members of the household play on women's outcomes, as opposed to simply targeting women alone or through couples-based (nuclear family oriented) policies.

The problem of patriarchy

Experts News18 spoke to on the findings of the working paper largely agreed that mothers-in-law and husbands influence a rural Indian woman’s social life, which impacts family planning and fertility. The prevailing reason here is patriarchy, they said.

They also said that though times are changing, and residents in the backwoods are often averse to large family sizes due to increase in cost of living, the government is not able to provide an alternative to the demands of rural households.

Dr YK Sandhya, assistant coordinator of the NGO Sahyog, with expertise in maternal health, rights, and sexual health, said, “To an extent, we have seen this trend. It is true that MILs try to control their DIL’s sexuality. They play a critical role in deciding how many children should be born, how often children should be born. There is no doubt about it because patriarchy is a very strong feature of our Indian society. MILs do influence choice of contraceptives."

She added, “We need to focus on measures that can change the way MILs think. See what frontline workers are doing to address this issue. The larger population policy as pursued by the government harps on sterilisation. We see that young women are being pushed into sterilisation, and are not provided counselling on this.”

The experts observed, there is a shift in thinking as well because cost of living is high now. “There is a change in thinking on family sizes but no alternative is being provided to deal with that change,” said Sandhya.

A doctor working in the field of male fertility, who did not want to be named, said, “There is a problem: MILs don’t want that we highlight their sons’ fertility issues.”

Heads-up for policymakers

The ‘Curse of the Mummy-ji’ researchers believe this issue is even more relevant in the context of India, where they have observed that at-home reach of health workers is quite low—only eight per cent of health workers have ever spoken to female non-users about family planning in Jaunpur district (National Family Health Survey 2015-16), implying that a woman’s inability to access a family planning clinic effectively translates into no interaction with a family planning provider.

In addition, women who do have friends have very particular types of “friends” – who are “Mother-in-law and relatives”. They shape the behaviour very differently from the settings that are more expansive rather than restrictive, for example in sub-Saharan Africa, the researchers say. In other words, it’s not just about network size but composition as well. “The fact that both size and composition of women’s networks matter imply that policymakers need to rethink how targeting strategies should be designed to reach women who are both hard to reach across both these dimensions,” said the authors.