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India’s mothers-in-law fight back against ‘persecution’

Bangalore — For years they have been the butt of jokes and regular figures of fun for comedians across the world. But in India, mothers-in-law are fighting back for a different reason.

A new campaign group, the All India Mother-in-Law Protection Forum, has been set up not only to fight negative stereotyping but also push for greater legal protection of their rights.

"What’s happening in India is that mothers-in-law are getting persecuted at the hands of daughters-in-law. This is very rampant everywhere. But it’s not come out in the open," said founder member Neena Dhulia.

"It’s always happening within the four walls of the house, so the mother-in-law is reluctant to tell anyone because society doesn’t accept her… There’s no one to listen to her. They are suffering in silence," she told AFP.

The group’s chapter in the southern city of Bangalore has some 50 members and since it launched earlier this month has attracted interest from women in Mumbai and New Delhi who want to set up branches, she added.

Weekly meetings are being held and a special helpline has been set up to help older women who face what the group’s mission statement says is "severe physical and mental harassment at the hands of their daughters-in-law."

To counter the image that they are the chief persecutors, the group points to India’s National Family Health Survey (NFHS) that suggested women aged 15 to 49 were eight times more likely to face violence from their own mother or step-mother than their mother-in-law.

Marriage and the family remain cornerstones in Indian society and many newlyweds live with the husband’s relatives under one roof. But the tradition can lead to problems.

The NFHS study, published in 2007, indicated that just over a third of women aged 15 to 49 said they had experienced domestic violence but only one in four had ever sought help.

Victims were more likely to be uneducated, rural women from the lowest rung of the economic ladder and in 85 percent of cases, husbands were responsible.

Pouru Chistiwadia, from the Women’s Rights Initiative of the public interest Lawyers Collective in Mumbai, accepted that some mothers-in-law may have cause for complaint beyond simple personality clashes with their daughters-in-law.

But Indian wives were still more often abused at home by their husband’s mother, either through taunts and comments about their behaviour or family or by making them work like domestic maids, she told AFP.

Mothers-in-law can also incite their sons to hit their wives, she added, but few victims, particularly those in poorer households, can afford to move out.

"It’s a power struggle. Sometimes she (the mother-in-law) feels she faced it as a daughter-in-law," said Wadia.

"She feels she is now in charge and if it’s a joint family, she thinks it’s her house and she doesn’t want her daughter-in-law to change that."

Demands for dowry — property and valuables given by the bride’s family at marriage — and pressures to abort baby girls because of the importance placed on male children in Indian culture are also factors in abuse, she added.

Both dowry and sex-selective abortions are banned in India, but still practised.

Dhulia, a housewife in her 50s, said changing attitudes among younger Indian women, including a desire not to live with their in-laws, were often a factor in daughters-in-law turning against their husband’s mother.

The group wants legislation to be passed to protect them, as they cannot use current anti-domestic violence laws, she added.

They also want an end to their portrayal in popular culture as rolling-pin-wielding harridans hell-bent on terrorising their daughters-in-law, and proper investigations by police into complaints.

"(Any woman who makes a false complaint) should be equally punished. At the moment she goes scot-free but the husband’s family suffers the stigma and is looked down upon. There’s an assumption of no smoke without fire," Dhulia said.

"Our main aim is to create awareness about it. Society needs to change its attitude to them and needs to take proper steps."