Social Identity

How mothers-in-law influence women’s social networks and reproductive health

  • Blog Post Date 03 August, 2020
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Catalina Herrera-Almanza

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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Mahesh Karra

Boston University

Restrictive social norms and strategic constraints imposed by family members can limit women’s access to and benefit from social networks. Based on a survey in rural Uttar Pradesh, this article shows that a young, married woman who lives with her mother-in-law has 36% fewer close peers outside the home – in comparison to a similar woman who does not co-reside with the mother-in-law – which in turn reduces her access to, and utilisation of reproductive health services.


Social networks, such as caste-based networks in India, provide a range of benefits and services to their members. However, 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. In recent research (Anukriti et al. 2020), we describe the social networks of 18-30-year-old married women in Jaunpur district, Uttar Pradesh, and analyse how inter-generational power dynamics within the marital household affect their ability to access and form social networks.

Women are socially isolated and face severe mobility restrictions

Our data, collected in 2018, shows that women in our sample are quite isolated – besides her husband and mother-in-law (MIL), an average sample woman interacts with 1.6 individuals in her district about issues that are important to her, and with 0.7 individuals 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 Jaunpur, and the modal woman has only one close peer in Jaunpur district. In fact, the proportion of women in our sample who have no close peers anywhere (inside or outside Jaunpur) is also substantial (22%).

The mobility restrictions experienced by our sample 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. In addition, consistent with other empirical evidence from India (for example, Kandpal and Baylis 2013, 2019), we find that the social network of our sample women displays homophily by caste, gender, marital status, and religion.

The restrictive influence of the mother-in-law

We then examine whether co-residence with the MIL influences a daughter-in-law’s ability to form social connections outside the home. In patrilocal-patrilineal societies where extended households are common, such as India, household members other than the husband, especially the MIL, can play a crucial role in determining a woman’s autonomy and well-being1. 1 Arguably, the MIL may be an even stronger influence on a woman than her husband, especially during the early years of the arranged marriage. However, the extent to which the MIL plays a constraining or supporting role in shaping the social network of her daughter-in-law (DIL) is a priori unclear. On the one hand, the MIL may restrict the DIL’s social circle aiming to prevent outside influence from deviating the DIL’s behaviour and outcomes from the MIL’s preferences. On the other hand, co-residence with the MIL may enable the DIL to tap into the MIL’s social network, which is likely to be larger and more connected, given her age and length of residence in the village.

We find that, compared to a woman who does not reside with her MIL, a woman who lives with her MIL has 18% fewer close peers in her village with whom she interacts about issues related to health, fertility, and family planning, and has 36% fewer such peers outside the home (that is,close outside peers’). Our estimates suggest that the MIL restricts her DIL’s social network by not permitting her to visit places outside the home alone, potentially to control the DIL’s fertility and family planning behaviour. The negative relationship between MIL-co-residence and DIL’s number of close outside peers is stronger, if the MIL does not approve of family planning, if she wants more children than the DIL desires, and if she wants her DIL to have more sons than she already has. These findings suggest that the MIL’s restrictive behaviour is ultimately driven by her preferences and attitudes towards fertility and family planning.

Lack of peers may hurt women’s reproductive health

The restrictions that are imposed by the MIL on her DIL’s access to social networks can potentially have significant detrimental impacts on the DIL. In our setting, women who have fewer close outside peers are less likely to visit health facilities to receive reproductive health, fertility, or family planning services, and are less likely to use modern contraceptive methods. Indeed, our analysis shows that the DIL’s number of close outside peers is an important channel through which a DIL’s co-residence with her MIL alters her family planning outcomes.

In addition, our analysis seeks to identify the causal effect of close outside peers on a woman’s family planning outcomes. Our findings imply that having an additional close outside peer increases a woman’s likelihood of visiting a family planning clinic by 67 percentage points relative to the 30% probability among women who do not have any close outside peers in their village. Similarly, an additional close outside peer increases a woman’s likelihood of using modern contraceptive methods by 11 percentage points, relative to the 16% probability among women who do not have a close outside peer in their village.

Peers provide information and companionship

We present suggestive evidence that the peer effects underlying our results operate through at least two channels: information diffusion, and peer support through companionship. Women who have more close outside peers believe that a larger proportion of women in their village are using family planning, suggesting that peers affect women’s beliefs about the social acceptability of family planning. This channel is consistent with prior evidence on the role of social networks in information diffusion. Second, a woman’s close outside peers accompany her to seek care at a family planning clinic, thereby enabling her to overcome the mobility constraints that are imposed on her by the MIL.

Policy implications

Recent empirical evidence shows that family planning interventions could be successful in reducing unmet need for family planning by tapping into women’s social networks; however, these findings are obtained from settings where women’s social networks are dense and extended2. If women only have a few close peers, as is the case in our study setting, then 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 contexts such as rural Uttar Pradesh, where there is a significant unmet need for family planning (18%), and where at-home reach of health workers is quite low. Only 13% of health workers have ever talked to female non-users about family planning (National Family Health Survey, 2016), implying that a woman’s inability to access a family planning clinic effectively translates into no interaction with a family planning provider.

Second, future interventions that aim to reach women would 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 (Varghese and Roy 2019). These future policies should address the potential misalignment of fertility preferences, and asymmetry of information and bargaining power between the MIL and DIL, in a manner similar to the interventions that have sought to address spousal conflict over contraception (Ashraf et al. 2014, McCarthy 2019).

Future work should extend our analysis to other Indian states and to other developing countries to identify potential variation in the characteristics of women’s social networks, and in the influence of the MIL. Whether, and what types of, policies can counter the negative influence of the MIL also remains to be explored (Kumar et al. 2019).


  1. Patrilocality refers to the practice of a married couple residing with or near the husband’s parents. Patrilineality is a kinship system in which an individual’s family membership derives from the father's lineage.
  2. Most of these interventions take place in sub-Saharan Africa (Colleran and Mace 2015, Institute of Reproductive Health, 2019).

Further Reading

  • Anukriti, S, Catalina Herrera-Almanza, Mahesh Karra and Praveen Kumar Pathak (2020), “Curse of the Mummy-ji: The Influence of Mothers-in-Law on Women in India”, American Journal of Agricultural Economics, forthcoming.
  • Ashraf, Nava, Erica Field and Jean Lee (2014), “Household Bargaining and Excess Fertility: An Experimental Study in Zambia”, American Economic Review, 104(7):2210-2237.
  • Kandpal, E and K Baylis (2015), ‘Do Peer Effects Influence the Household Bargain? Evidence from Children’s Food Consumption in India’, Working Paper.
  • Kandpal, Eeshani and Kathy Baylis (2019), “The Social Lives of Married Women: Peer Effects in Female Autonomy and Investments in Children”, Journal of Development Economics, 140(September):26-43.
  • Kumar, Neha, Kalyani Raghunathan, Alejandra Arrieta, Amir Jilani, Suman Chakrabarti, Purnima Menon and Agnes R Quisumbing (2019), “Social Networks, Mobility, and Political Participation: The Potential for Women’s Self-Help Groups to Improve Access and Use of Public Entitlement Schemes in India”, World Development, 114(February):28-41.
  • McCarthy, Aine Seitz (2019), “Intimate Partner Violence and Family Planning Decisions: Experimental Evidence from Rural Tanzania”, World Development, 114:156-174.
  • Varghese, Rekha and Manan Roy (2019), “Coresidence with Mother-in-Law and Maternal Anemia in Rural India”, Social Science & Medicine, 226(April):37-46.
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