Mothers-in-law and even sisters-in-law are also perpetrators of gender-based violence

Gender violence is not necessarily physical abuse, but humiliation, gossip, or rumors about the wife's behavior. Family values may take precedence over a woman's integrity, according to a study. About 42 percent of Mexican women live with their husband's or partner's parents or other relatives.

Mothers-in-law and even sisters-in-law are also perpetrators of gender-based violence
A mexican woman making tortillas. In the original populations, separation is not suggested in the face of partner aggression. Photo by Menú Acapulco / Unsplash

Women in Mexico suffer gender violence in public, private and institutional spaces; however, a substantive difference between that which occurs in rural and urban areas is that in the first case their behavior is under the scrutiny of the community, said Carolina Agoff Boileau, a researcher at the Regional Center for Multidisciplinary Research (CRIM) of the UNAM, Carolina Agoff Boileau.

In the research "Gender violence in indigenous communities", the expert found a relevant fact: the role of the mother-in-law as the perpetrator of violent acts against her daughter-in-law. Furthermore, the value of the family may be above the integrity of the person who suffers aggression from her partner.

"Generally when we talk about gender violence we think only of a man and a woman, where he exerts it and she is the victim; doing so limits us in understanding a phenomenon that is much more complex because it is rooted in institutions, culture and people close to the social environment; in this case, the family, can contribute to these dynamics," she said.

The most recent National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships (ENDIREH, 2016) shows that approximately 42 percent of indigenous or not, who married or started their current or last union, went to live with the parents or other relatives of their husband or partner. In other words, many of them have a pattern of patriarchal-local residence (where the man lives with his wife in the paternal home), a situation that may favor abuse dynamics due to the interference of members of his family.

The university professor explained that the research, carried out jointly with the academic secretary of the CRIM, Sonia Frías Martínez, began to determine the degree of cultural adequacy of the ENDIREH questionnaire, with the suspicion that perhaps certain questions were not easy to understand for those who are indigenous bilinguals or have difficulty mastering Spanish.

"We conducted focus groups to gather qualitative information. We were able to access 15 women leaders in their communities from different indigenous populations, such as Rarámuri, Otomí, Nahua, Maya, and Mixe. With a broad awareness of gender inequality and the situation of women and girls in their communities, they gave us an overview of the different types of aggressions they suffer, and from there we formed four more groups: two in Oaxaca with Mixes, and two in Yucatán, with Mayas," she added.

Although there is the idea that one should be an ally of the other, the research indicates that rudeness can be exercised not only by the husband but also by the mother-in-law, the sisters-in-law, and even the sisters-in-law "because what is at stake is the patriarchal system; and patriarchy in this type of society is defined by subordination to the male, residence, and property. They want to ensure loyalty to the male who brings money into the house. Also at stake is 'decency', that the young woman does not jeopardize the 'honor' of the family".

The mother-in-law molests the daughter-in-law or instigates her son to do so, but it is not necessarily physical abuse, but rather humiliation or spreading gossip or rumors about the young woman's behavior. Her "misconduct" has to do with sexual reputation: she should not provoke men, nor go to health centers for family planning, for example. There is strict control over her public behavior which, in general, is exercised by the mother-in-law because the husband is working, Agoff Boileau explained.

It is the husband's mother who may say that the wife went to get the tortillas but took too long, and spread the rumor that she was seen talking to a man, or that she was wearing a short skirt. She lets her son know that her partner is not behaving at all well, that there are suspicions that she talked to someone, or that she visited the health center.

Often, indigenous women say that verbal aggression, in the form of humiliation, scorn, or attacks on dignity, is more painful in the sense that it cannot be forgotten, and they express more indignation about that coming from the mother-in-law than from the husband himself, Agoff Boileau said. They believe that such behavior occurs, she said, because they are not sympathetic to mothers-in-law, or because they would have preferred another young woman as a daughter-in-law; they fail to see that the problem is systemic. However, when asked what they would be like as mothers-in-law in the future, they stated, "probably the same."

Despite the existence of laws such as the General Law on Women's Access to a Life Free of Violence, many indigenous communities are governed by customs and traditions; there, in the event of a couple's conflict, the objective is to preserve family unity and separation is not advised, even though it is often necessary. One of the interviewees related the example of a cacique: she endorsed that a husband and his relatives forcibly detain his wife, locking her up, because she wanted to return to her parents' house due to the extreme attacks she was experiencing. "This is a case that is not necessarily typical or representative, but it gives an idea of the extremely unjust ways in which these problems are attempted to be resolved."

Indigenous women, of course, suffer other forms of violence, such as obstetric violence, because the planning strategy is not always carried out in a way that respects their rights; or political violence, because their participation in public life is impeded. Although in general, the surveys report a suspiciously low number of abuses against women living in the communities, "we found in a Mixe group, which was not bilingual, that women in no way talk about their intimate life or any expression of violence with anyone coming from a government institution. Undoubtedly, there is underreporting and we should think about strategies to get information closer to reality," she said.

Carolina Agoff acknowledged that the public policies that have accompanied the legislation against gender violence have been successful in terms of awareness of rights, especially among young women. It is understood that this is a crime, so they talk about "suing" the husband "if it continues like this"; however, it is the justice system that still fails to provide a solution.