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HomeOpinionIndian women can't go out and socialise because of their mothers-in-law: Study

Indian women can’t go out and socialise because of their mothers-in-law: Study

Researchers from Boston and Delhi universities surveyed young married Indian women aged between 18-30 in Uttar Pradesh’s Jaunpur district. This is what they found.

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In developing countries, where formal institutions are missing or may function imperfectly, informal community networks, such as caste-based networks in India, provide a range of benefits and services to their members. However, in traditional patriarchal societies, women may have limited ability to access and benefit from existing networks due to restrictive social norms and strategic constraints that are imposed on them by their family members.

We characterise the social networks of young married women in rural India—a population with extremely low levels of empowerment — and analyse how inter-generational power dynamics within the household affect their ability to access and form social networks.

We find that these women have remarkably few social connections outside their homes, and co-residence with the mother-in-law is a significant barrier to a woman’s mobility and ability to tap into her caste-based village networks, resulting in detrimental impacts on her access and utilisation of reproductive health services.

Sample group

We collected primary data on the social networks of 18-30-year-old married women in Jaunpur district, Uttar Pradesh, in 2018. The average woman in our sample is 26 years old, while her husband is 33 years old. On average, women in our sample, as well as their husbands, have completed roughly nine years of schooling. Almost 43 per cent of women belong to a Scheduled Caste (SC), 44 per cent belong to Other Backward Class (OBC), and 12 per cent belong to upper castes. The vast majority (93 per cent) of our sample is Hindu, and nearly 60 per cent of the households own agricultural land. Over 67 per cent of the sample women live with their mothers-in-law. About 52 per cent of women have at least one son, and on average, women have two children.

The lack of women’s mobility in our study area is striking: a very low proportion of women are allowed to go alone to the market (19 per cent), to a health facility (14 per cent), and to the homes of friends or relatives in the village (12 per cent). Moreover, only 14 per cent of the women worked in the last seven days and 88 per cent practice ghunghat or purdah, which reflect the conservative norms that are practiced within our study area. Lastly, 18 per cent of the women were using a modern contraceptive method at the time of the survey, and 35 per cent of them had visited a health facility for reproductive health, fertility, or family planning services at some point in their lives.


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Characterisation of women’s social networks 

We find that young married women in rural India interact with very few individuals, besides their husbands and mothers-in-law, about their personal affairs or private concerns. An average woman in our sample mentions 1.6 general peers in Jaunpur district; in contrast, an average woman in the United States reported having eight close friends in a 2004 Gallup poll. About 9 per cent of women have no such peers; 40 per cent of women mention one person, and 33 per cent of women mention two people.

Women’s interactions with others are even more limited within the domains of family planning, fertility, and reproductive health. Nearly 36 per cent of women speak to no one in Jaunpur district, besides their husband and mother-in-law, about these issues. The modal woman has only one such close peer, and the proportion of women in our sample who have no close peers anywhere (inside or outside Jaunpur) is also substantial (22 per cent).

Most (86 per cent) of women’s close peers in Jaunpur are relatives. The average duration of a woman’s close-peer relationships in Jaunpur is highly correlated with her marital duration, which is consistent with the fact that most women in our sample moved to their marital villages from elsewhere after their marriage. Almost 60 per cent of the close-peer relationships in Jaunpur were formed more than five years ago, and 62 per cent of the women report talking with their close peers every day, while 27 per cent of them talk with their close peers every other week

Furthermore, 58 per cent of the women reported that they would feel very comfortable leaving their children for an afternoon with their close peers, while 50 per cent of them reported having discussed marital problems and intra- household conflicts with their close peers. Thus, women’s social networks in our context are strongly embedded within their extended households, which is not surprising given the severe mobility constraints that they face. These results are consistent with the evidence from other contexts indicating that women’s networks tend to be comprised of a larger proportion of kin-ties compared to men’s networks.

If we narrow our focus geographically to the woman’s village, an average woman has only 0.55 close peers in her village, roughly half of whom live in her household while the other half live outside her household. Only 49 per cent of the women have at least one close peer in their respective villages, and the proportion of women who have such a close peer outside her household is even smaller (24 per cent). Thus, our sample women have severely limited interaction with people outside their homes.


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Influence of the mother-in-law 

We examine how co-residence with the mother-in-law restricts her daughter-in-law’s social network; why and how the mother-in-law exerts her influence; and the consequences of these restrictions for the daughter-in-law.

We find that the mother-in-law prevents her daughter-in-law from forming social connections by imposing constraints on her mobility. Although the ability to access spaces outside the home is low even for women who do not live with their mother-in-law, those who do fare much worse in terms of their freedom of movement.

Living with the mother-in-law significantly lowers the ability of a woman to visit alone the homes of relatives or friends in the village or neighbourhood by 77 per cent, relative to the women who do not reside with their mother-in-law.

Similarly, a woman who lives with her mother-in-law is 53 per cent less able to visit a health facility alone than a comparable woman who does not live with her mother-in-law. The pattern is similar for mobility restrictions on visiting alone other places outside the home, such as, the market, the grocery store, and places outside the village or community.


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What mother-in-law fears

In order to understand why the mother-in-law restricts her daughter-in-law’s interactions with outsiders about matters related to health, fertility, and family planning, we examine the heterogeneity in our previous results by the mother-in-law’s preferences and attitudes about fertility and family planning.

The negative influence of the mother-in-law on her daughter-in-law’s number of close peers is stronger, both in magnitude and in significance, when she disapproves of family planning, when her ideal number of children for her daughter-in-law is larger than the daughter-in-law’s own ideal number of children, and when she desires more sons for the daughter-in-law than the daughter-in-law’s current number of living sons.

This heterogeneity suggests that the mother-in-law fears that outside influence may cause her daughter-in-law’s fertility outcomes and family planning use to deviate from her, i.e., the mother-in-law’s, preferences. In fact, among the sample of women whose mothers-in-law disapprove of family planning, 71 per cent believe that this is because the mother-in-law wants them to have (more) children—this is by far the most cited reason, followed by 25 per cent of women who believe that their mother-in-law is worried about the side effects from using contraceptive methods.

The ability of the mother-in-law to restrict her daughter-in-law from interacting with outsiders is stronger when her son (i.e., the daughter-in-law’s husband) also disapproves of family planning and when he is a migrant, i.e., has been away from home for one month or more at a time. These findings imply that the mother-in-law’s authority is even stronger when the woman’s husband is often away from home and when his family planning attitudes are aligned with those of his mother.


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Why it matters

Women who have more close outside peers in their village are more likely to be permitted to visit a health facility with someone, and they may be better informed about the true contraceptive prevalence rates in their villages.

Apart from providing companionship to places outside home, close outside peers also empower women to visit these places alone. This “empowerment effect” of peers could occur through several channels.

Policy implications 

Our results are informative for the design of policies that leverage social networks to increase women’s access and uptake of family planning and reproductive health services.

First, if women have few close peers, it would be more challenging to reach them and to diffuse information or other policy interventions through their networks. This issue is even more relevant in the context of India, where we observe that at-home reach of health workers is quite low—only 8 per cent of health workers have ever talked to female non-users about family planning in Jaunpur district, implying that a woman’s inability to access a family planning clinic effectively translates into no interaction with a family planning provider.

Second, our results point out that the mother-in-law acts as a gatekeeper for women’s social interactions and the potential benefits that networks provide their members. Thus, future interventions that aim to reach women would benefit from addressing the gatekeeper-role of the mother-in-law into their targeting strategies, or by directly targeting the mother-in-law in a joint family to inform her about the benefits of family planning and reproductive health services.

S. Anukriti is Assistant Professor of Economics at Boston College.

Catalina Herrera-Almanza is Assistant Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Northeastern University.

Mahesh Karra is an Assistant Professor of Global Development Policy at Boston University.

Praveen Pathak is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Delhi School of Economics.

This is an edited extract from the authors’ working paper Curse of the Mummy-ji: The Influence of Mothers-in-Law on Women’s Social Networks, Mobility, and Reproductive Health in India.

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5 COMMENTS

  1. With r/t the article, the following questions to Mr Shekhar Gupta, Management and the Editorial Board of “The Print” to which they must provide acceptable answers:
    1. What is the motive for doing this research?
    2. Can any change be effected based on this study just to meet some foreign standard, where promiscuity is rampant?
    3. How was it determined that X percentage of women belonged to the SC/ST/OBC/Upper Caste category?
    4. How is the politically created “Artificial Category” status of the women of any relevance to the study?
    5. Why was it felt necessary to determine the “SC/ST/OBC/UC” status of the women?
    6. Who are the “Upper Caste” and in which part of the constitution are they mentioned? If the term is not mentioned, then why is it used?
    7. Was the SC/ST/OBC status verified from the State List or the Central Govt list?
    8. Why Jaunpur was chosen?

    It is most unfortunate that anti-social, professional hate instigators and society-splitters like Dilip Mandal, etc are getting a free run in the Print without contributing to the welfare of the India society.

  2. Poor research. Kindly consider culture, population choices etc. Don’t impose your opinion on others. Different people have different preferences, principles, etc.

    • Poor comment. Kindly consider the facts that came out of ground level data collection and methodical research. Don’t impose your ingrained biases on others.

  3. ThePrint is continuously dividing Hindus in SCs, OBCs and even sub-castes……

    Have you done any survey between Shias or Sunnis that how they perform their social life….

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