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Improved Inheritance Rights for Women: A Noose for India?

Improved Inheritance Rights for Women: A Noose for India?

By Siwan Anderson and Garance Genicot

The World Health Organization (2014) estimates that there were 260,000 suicide deaths in India in 2012 alone. It is the cause of twice as many deaths as HIV/AIDS and almost the same number as maternal deaths in young women (Patel et al. 2012). Government statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 1967 onwards reveal that the broad class of “family problems” is the main reported cause of suicide for both men and women.

Suicides by married women and men as a response to family conflict are a common occurrence in developing countries.

Suicides by married women and men as a response to family conflict are a common occurrence in developing countries. Research has emphasised the cultural ramifications of suicide – relative to developed countries, where suicidal behaviour tends to be interpreted as a symptom of individual mental health, in poorer countries, suicide is often considered a normal, albeit last resort response, to a serious family conflict (Canetto 2008).

Hence, government policies that strengthen the position of women, by altering negotiations between men and women within families (husband and wives; brother and sisters), could be one of the factors explaining these increasing suicide rates.

Suicide: The Last Exit?? | Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

Suicide: The Last Resort? | Photo Courtesy: Pinterest

In a recent paper, we examine policies that affect individual inheritance rights to family property in India and study the relationship between improved inheritance rights for women and the incidence of suicide among both men and women (Anderson and Genicot 2015).

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 was a landmark legislation that conferred inheritance rights on Hindu women, and gave the same rights to sons and daughters in the case of intestate death1. However, this Act only applied to separate property (purchased or inherited land from persons other than father, grandfather, great grandfather etc.). The Act did not apply to the most common form of ownership – joint family property (inherited ancestral property). An additional shortfall of the Act was that it did not cover land ownership stemming from tenancy rights. We use both these exemptions in turn to analyse the effect of better inheritance rights for women on suicides.

Women’s Right to Inherit Joint Family Property

Prior to a nationwide 2005 Amendment, a few states passed amendments to equalise the inheritance rights of men and women over joint family property2  Deininger, Goyal and Nagarajan (2013) have shown that these early amendments increased the likelihood of women inheriting land.

We use this state-level variation in the legal treatment of women over time to examine its effects on suicide rates using NCRB data for fifteen major Indian states over the period 1967-2004. We find that the amendments are associated with an increase in the suicide rates for both men and women, particularly men. This is robust to accounting for state and year characteristics as well as the economic and cultural conditions in the state. We estimate that amendments resulted in 1 more female suicide per 100,000 and 4 more male suicides per 100,000 – a substantial effect. For both genders, these increases come mainly from increases in suicides due to family problems.

Tenancy Rights

Next, we turn to tenancy rights. Prior to 2005, state laws governed the inheritance rights of women to tenancy land, and the landholding restrictions per family units. Several states specified an order of devolution of tenancy rights that strongly favored men.

States also vary in their definition of the family for the landholding limits, with some states not giving any recognition to daughters at all.

States also vary in their definition of the family for the landholding limits, with some states not giving any recognition to daughters at all. We analyse this state-level variation in the legal treatment of women in conjunction with land and tenancy reforms to contrast more and less pro-female reforms. The findings are consistent with the effects of the joint property amendments on suicide. Though land reform strongly decreases suicides rates of both genders (which is expected given the poverty reduction effects found by Besley and Burgess (2000)), having more pro-women property reform reduces these effects (resulting in a smaller reduction in suicides), especially for men.

Increase in Suicide Rates for Both Men and Women?

Increasing women’s inheritance rights improves women’s opportunities outside of marriage and therefore is likely to increase the bargaining power of women relative to their husbands. As such, these policies can be beneficial for women at the cost of men and hence, suicide rates for men could rise.

However, more voice and more decision-making power for women can be a source of conflict within families. These conflicts can take the form of minor quarrels or escalate to be a source of intense stress for an individual. If escaping situations of intense conflict seems impossibly long or difficult to a person, he or she may choose suicide as a quick exit.

An increase in family conflict would reinforce the effect of the policy on suicide among men but could also imply an increase in female suicide, even if women are better off due to the policy.

In our study, we present a model of intra-household bargaining with potential conflict, which predicts that improving property rights for women raises their expected welfare but can raise conflict within the household. When wives contribute a greater proportion of the total family wealth, they no longer accept any allocation offered by their husbands. Women expect, and are more likely to get, a more equitable share of consumption.

However, as a consequence of these higher expectations, conflict within households can rise, some of which could be a source of intense stress and result in higher suicide rates for both men and women.

The sociological literature has long recognized the possibility for higher suicide rates, for both men and women, to be associated with increased gender equality (Burr et al. 1997, Pampel 1998). It emphasizes how increased opportunities for women can accentuate tensions and marital discord within households, by challenging traditional roles, increasing the importance of negotiation, and raising the potential for conflict.

Empirical accounts from developed countries suggest that this dire consequence of increased opportunities for women tend to be mitigated once societal institutions adjust and there is a greater acceptance of the new gender roles (Stack 1987, Pampel 1998). We therefore expect the emerging new cultural norms of gender equality in India to coincide with a decline in female and male suicide rates.

In this context, our model also suggests a role for policies that decrease the cost of conflict. Changes in laws, and in societal and family norms to provide help for domestic abuse and ease separations might help by decreasing the cost of conflict.

Dr. Siwan Anderson is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of British Columbia in Canada. She is a member of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research (CIFAR), a fellow of the Bureau for Research and Economic Analysis of Development (BREAD), and an associate of Theoretical Research in Development Economics (ThReD).

Garance Genicot is an associate professor at Georgetown University. Prior to joining Georgetown University in 2003, she was an assistant professor of Economics at the University of California at Irvine (1999-2003). She received her B.A. in Economics from the University of Liege, Belgium in 1995 and her Ph.D. in Economics from Cornell University in 1999.


  1. Intestate death refers to a situation where a person dies without leaving a valid will.
  2. Andhra Pradesh in 1986, Tamil Nadu in 1989, and Maharashtra and Karnataka in 1994.

This article was originally published on Ideas for India.

Featured Image Source: Visual Hunt

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