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In my last post, I talked about how gender-discriminatory inheritance rights have been in the past. While the situation has improved in a large number of countries, the world is still far from equal. That said, based on the experience so far, what have we learnt about the effects of policies that equalize inheritance rights between sons and daughters, husbands and wives, men and women? There isn’t a whole lot of credible evidence on this from different regions of the world but let me tell you what we do know.
Let’s consider India’s example. Inheritance laws in India differ by religion. A vast majority of the population (i.e., Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists) are governed by what is called the 1956 Hindu Succession Act (HSA). While HSA was an improvement over the traditional religious doctrines that were totally gender-biased, it too was not that great in reality. For instance, if a father died without a will, his daughters did not have any rights over his ancestral property. Daughters were given equal inheritance rights over the father’s “separate” property, i.e., property that he did not inherit from his paternal ancestors. But keep in mind that in India ancestral property, e.g., agricultural land, comprises a huge chunk (84% by some estimates) of family wealth! And a lot of fathers die without a will (65 to 80%)!
And what about the widowed wife? While she had a share in her husband’s separate property, like her daughters she too did not inherit any ancestral property—be it her husband’s or her father’s. Given that Indian women still have a low labor force participation rate, it is not hard to understand why Indian widows live in such terrible circumstances.
Some states in India amended these laws over time. The southern-most state Kerala abolished joint family property altogether in 1976. Four other southern states (Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka) did not go that far, but granted daughters equal rights over ancestral property to daughters. In 2005, the rest of the country caught up as well and the HSA was amended nationwide.
So what were the effects of these amendments? Several researchers have tried to examine the impact of the first generation of reforms in the five south Indian states. Sanchari Roy, an economist at the University of Sussex, finds that they DID NOT increase daughters’ likelihood of inheriting any land! Instead, after the reforms, fathers were more likely to strategically “gift” their land to the sons so as to circumvent these new laws! Daughters, however, were “compensated.” Younger daughters were given more education and girls about to get married received higher dowries as a substitute for their share in ancestral property.
Why would fathers do that? Well, apart from any inherent gender biases, this could be because they want to keep the land “within their family”. Typically, once a daughter gets married, she leaves her parents’ home and joins her husband’s family in another village or city. This means that any land that’s given to a daughter is effectively being passed on to another family. Moreover, the more claimants there are, the more fragmented the property gets. If each child inherits a smaller piece of land, it might not be the most efficient way to cultivate the already small landholdings that Indian farmers possess. And may be giving a daughter education is a better gift than a piece of land that her husband can seize from her control?
Another study by Siwan Anderson also uses the same set-up and finds that better inheritance rights for women increased marital conflict and domestic violence, and led to more suicides for both men and women in India! By the way, did you know that suicide is the second leading cause of death among young Indians?
So what do these papers tell us? Despite being highly contextual, a broad takeaway from these studies is that the world is a complicated place. Even well-intentioned and obviously good policies almost never yield straightforward results. As researchers, we try to focus on a narrow question (a “partial” analysis) and try to tease out the most unbiased effect on a particular outcome. But what does the big picture effect look like? Only time will tell?
All images in this post belong to Sally Nixon.