Suicide and property rights in India

By Paul Walker 18/03/2014

There is an interesting but troubling result in a new NBER working paper on Suicide and Property Rights in India by Siwan Anderson and Garance Genicot. The abstract reads,

This paper studies the impact of female property rights on male and female suicide rates in India. Using state level variation in legal changes to women’s property rights, we show that better property rights for women are associated with a decrease in the difference between female and male suicide rates, but an increase in both male and female suicides. We conjecture that increasing female property rights increased conflict within household and this increased conflict resulted in more suicides among both men and women in India. Using individual level data on domestic violence we find evidence that increased property rights for women did increase the incidence of wife beating in India. A model of intra-household bargaining with asymmetric information and costly conflict is consistent with these findings.

Increasing property rights for women is a good thing but increasing the suicide rate for both men and women is the bad thing. An increase in domestic violence is also, clearly, a bad thing. How to deal with the trade-offs here is not obvious. As Anderson and Genicot write,

To be sure, this paper is not suggesting that improving female property rights is undesirable. Until recently, women have been excluded from land rights in many societies and their ability to inherit property has largely been restricted. A growing body of empirical evidence shows that improving women’s asset ownership, relative income, or ability to control land impacts the intra-household allocation of resources towards children (among others Lundberg et al. 1997, Duflo and Udry 2004, Bobonis 2009). That improvements in women’s relative position in the household can be desirable, not only on equity, but also on efficiency grounds is a frequent justification for policies targeting women, such as microcredit and conditional cash transfers. Moreover, there is evidence that making inheritance laws more egalitarian between sons and daughters has had desirable consequences in India. For example, Roy (2010) and Deininger, Goyal, and Nagarajan (2013) show that the legal changes to women’s property rights that we consider here increased daughters’ likelihood to inherit land, women’s age at marriage and the educational attainment of daughters.

Our model predicts that women’s expected welfare rises due to increased female property rights. When wives contribute a greater proportion of the total family wealth, they do 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 the household can rise and result in higher suicide rates for both men and women.

When considering the policy implications of their results Anderson and Genicot note that they are certainly not recommending that inheritance rights be kept unequal between men and women. Clearly their paper highlights some of the negative implications of women empowerment but they also point out that they do expect that women are made ex-ante better off by more equitable property rights. Anderson and Genicot suggest that other policies should be enacted to help deal with the negative aspects of the increase in female property rights. They suggest that policies that decrease the cost of conflict by easing separations for example can help. Referring to US evidence Anderson and Genicot point out that that states that adopted more liberal laws permitting “unilateral divorce” reported a 8 to 16 percent decline in female suicide and roughly a 30 percent decline in domestic violence for both men and women, and a 10 percent decline in females murdered by their partners. Anderson and Genicot note that in India, the Marriage Laws (Amendment) Bill in 2012 made divorce proceedings for unhappy couples easier and women-friendly, but stigma as well as norms in terms of child custody and alimony still make separation extremely hard in practise.

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