Using Mother-in-Law Power to End Domestic Violence

A new program in India could help reduce abuse of women around the world.

A woman attends protests prior to World Human Rights Day in Kashmir. (Photo: Yawar Nazir/Getty Images)

The name of the program is catchy and even cute --"Dil Mil," short for "daughter-in-law, mother-in-law" -- but its purpose is deadly serious, focused on saving lives and health.

Suneeta Krishnan, a social epidemiologist with RTI International, and her colleagues are testing the Dil Mil program in India to combat disturbingly high rates of domestic violence. More than half of married women there experience physical domestic violence, according to some reports; other studies find more than 30% are subjected to coercive sex.

Intimate partner and sexual violence have short-term and long-term health consequences, both for survivors and their children, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), which has stepped up efforts to combat domestic violence worldwide. In Ethiopia, for instance, rates are up to 71%, according to a recent WHO update. The health repercussions from domestic violence can include headaches, back pain, stomach pain, digestive problems, and poor overall health, WHO says. Sexual violence can lead to accidental pregnancies, gynecologic problems, and HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Over time, abused women can develop depression, eating disorders, post-traumatic stress, and other issues.

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Krishnan's new program, while still being tested, takes advantage of the power and prestige of the role of mother-in-law in Indian culture, as in many other countries. "Mothers-in-law (MILs) represent a strategic familial entry point," she tells TakePart. "As women age and become mothers and MILs, they gain considerable power within the family, especially over their sons and daughters-in-law (DILs), and thereby shape decisions pertaining to maternal and child health." That power, however, can go either way when it comes to domestic violence: Mothers-in-law may tolerate or even perpetuate abuse. With education, Krishnan believes they can help reduce or even eliminate it.

Her program -- during which the mothers-in-law attend five half-day sessions, and the daughters-in-law attend two half-day sessions -- aims to teach the elder and younger women that violence against women is rooted in gender inequities and how badly it can affect a woman's health. Krishnan and her colleagues use role-playing, stories, and proverbs to drive home these messages, and the program includes exercises to build decision-making -- namely teaching the older women how to defuse conflict and violence. And the women are taught "safety planning," or how to escape if violence happens.

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Initial results of Krishnan's research show that the program improves the young women's reproductive health and builds trust and communication among the two generations. She's already gotten inquiries from officials in Pakistan, Hong Kong, and China eager to try the program in their own countries. "I believe that this approach may be picked up among groups working with ethnic minorities in the U.S. as well," she tells TakePart. Krishnan is also working with the municipal health department in India, urging them to adopt India's first-ever policy on domestic violence and health.

What do you think are the most effective ways to end domestic violence? Tell us in the comments.

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