Mothers‑in‑Law Restrict Women’s Reproductive Agency by Isolating Them: Study
A first-of-its-kind study has found that married women in rural India have only one or two peers and even fewer close friends. These social connections that can otherwise serve as key sources of knowledge-sharing and community around taboo topics in India such as fertility and family planning are often restricted by the woman’s mother-in-law.
The study’s researchers stumbled upon this finding while trying to identify reasons why women’s access to health and reproductive services remains low, especially in regions with conservative social norms and rigid family structures, such as Jaunpur, Uttar Pradesh, where this study was conducted.
Researchers found that in districts like Jaunpur, mothers-in-law had an outsize impact on women’s social circles and therefore played a crucial part in influencing decisions about family planning. “Co-residing with their mother-in-law restricted women’s mobility and ability to form social connections outside the household, especially those related to health, fertility, and family planning,” per the study, conducted by researchers from the Delhi School of Economics, Boston University, and Boston College, and led by Northeastern University assistant professor in economics and international affairs, Catalina Herrera-Almanza.
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Of 671 women (18 to 30 years old) who were a part of this study, 67% lived with their mother-in-law, and nearly 36% spoke to only their husband or mother-in-law about family planning, the study found. More than a third of the women studied had no close friends in Jaunpur, and more than one in five had no close friends — anywhere. Women’s mobility was also restricted by their families: only 14% were allowed to go alone to a health facility and 12% percent were allowed to visit alone with their friends or relatives in their village.
Women who lived with their mothers-in-law had fewer peers and were less likely to be able to visit a health care facility by themselves, compared to women who didn’t co-reside with their mothers-in-law. The study also found that women who had fewer close peers were “significantly” less likely to have ever visited a health facility and are less likely to use modern contraception such as IUDs.
“It’s mainly motivated by misalignment of fertility preferences between mothers-in-law and their daughters-in-law,” Herrera-Almanza says in a press release. Her team suggests mothers-in-law fear that outside influences may alter a woman’s beliefs about what is acceptable and what is not when it comes to family planning, or help her overcome her mobility restrictions (imposed by her mother-in-law in most cases) by accompanying her to the clinic.
The researchers concluded policies designed to increase women’s access to reproductive health services and family planning in rural India must acknowledge the gatekeeping role that mothers-in-law play. Herrera-Almanza says in a press release: “Health care policies here need to shift the attention from just the couple and bring the mother-in-law into the conversation as well.”