Winter/Spring 2013

Unintended Consequences in the Struggle for Equal Rights: Anderson and Genicot explore the surprising relationship between suicides and female property rights in India.

A woman’s right to inherit property is restricted in many developing countries. These restrictions, and the ensuing battles for equal rights, have been a source of great conflict in many traditional societies.

To understand how these conflicts play out, GCER Fellow and Georgetown Professor Garance Genicot explores the little known but significant link between suicides and female property rights in India. In a recent paper entitled “Suicides and Property Rights in India”. Professor Genicot and co-author Siwan Anderson of the University of British Columbia document this link and provide a compelling explanation for its cause.

India presents a fascinating case study because, while the original Hindu Succession Act of 1956 mandates equal treatment in inheritance rights between sons and daughters, the Act contained two major loopholes. Both joint property and tenancy land were originally excluded.

Anderson and Genicot exploit the fact that from 1956 until a nationwide amendment in 2005, different states in India independently chose to strengthen women’s inheritance rights at different dates. Using these differences across states and time, they find that strengthened property rights for women decreased the ratio of female to male suicide rates, but increased the absolute numbers of both male and female suicides.

Since a large majority of suicide victims in India are married, and since “family problems” constitutes the main reported cause of suicides for both men and women, a natural conjecture is that marital discord is the main channel through which improving female property rights raises suicides. Consistent with this hypothesis, Anderson and Genicot show that improving property rights for women increases the proportion of suicides due to household conflict, and, using individual level data, they show that it increases the prevalence of domestic violence.

The authors root their explanation in a theoretical model of household bargaining under asymmetric information. The model predicts separations (divorce) as well as suicides in a manner consistent with the empirical findings. It shows that, as the share of assets held by women increase, the ratio of female to male suicide rates decreases, and conflict can increase. Periods of conflict are costly and reverting to normalcy takes time, so that either party may choose the “ultimate exit” and commit suicide.

The model shows that when women have nothing, they accept everything and therefore there is little conflict. Ironically, as women’ share of assets increases, their outside options improve slightly. They will not accept everything anymore and intra-household conflict will rise. Male suicide would increase, while the effect on female suicide could go either way.