An important driver of India’s unnaturally male-biased population sex ratio is the desire among Indian parents to have sons. This article investigates the extent to which this desire is driven by the stronger economic position of sons, particularly their greater command over ancestral property vis-à-vis daughters. It finds that equalising the inheritance rights of women and men led to increases in female foeticide, indicating that social norms were at odds with the legal reform.
India has a significant problem of ‘missing’ women (Sen 1990, Anderson and Ray 2010). It is estimated that 63 million women are currently missing (Economic Survey, 2017-18), leading to an unnaturally male-biased population sex ratio. An important driver of this phenomenon is the desire among Indian parents to have sons. To what extent is this desire for sons driven by their stronger economic position and, in particular, their greater command over ancestral property compared to daughters? Historically, Indian women did not enjoy the legal right to inherit ancestral property from their parents. Campaigns sweeping across contemporary social media such as #PropertyForHer argue that property rights are fundamental to improving women’s status. Might equalising the inheritance rights of women and men serve to mellow son preference? Or might it backfire? In recent research (Bhalotra et al. 2018), we find that reforming the inheritance law led to increases in female foeticide in India. This was an unintended consequence of the legal reform, arising from slow-changing patrilineal social norms.
At different dates between 1970 and 1990, five Indian states, namely, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, amended the Hindu Succession Act, 1956 to allow equal inheritance rights for women and men. In 2005, the central government mandated equal inheritance rights across the country, and this is when all other states implemented the reform. In the intervening years, the late reformers act as ‘controls’ (as they had not yet had the intervention) for the early reformers. However, a research strategy that compares trends across states is vulnerable to the fact that there are many other time-varying differences between states, some of which we may not be able to measure. To address this problem, we designed a strategy that allows us to compare families (even within a given state) that are similar except in their desire for another son.
To do this, we use the fact that previous studies have shown that a family’s incentive to commit female foeticide depends on the sex of their first child (Bhalotra and Cochrane 2010, Almond et al. forthcoming). These studies also show that the sex of the firstborn child in a family is quasi-random (largely determined by nature). The intuition is that families who, by a random draw, have a boy at first birth are more willing to have a subsequent girl than families who have a firstborn daughter. We further exploit the fact that implementation of the desire to control the sex of births was hugely facilitated by the advent of ultrasound technology that allows prenatal detection of the sex of a foetus. In sum, our research design allows us to test whether families with firstborn girls living in early-reforming states and having potential births post-ultrasound are more or less likely to have a girl at second birth compared with families with firstborn boys and, further, with families giving birth before the reform, or in late-reforming states.
Reforms intensified female foeticide
Our findings are as follows. First, we find that parents exposed to the reform and to ultrasound availability – who happen to have had a firstborn girl commit more female foeticide relative to the control group. Specifically, we estimate a significant decrease of 3.8–4.3 percentage points in the probability that the second birth is a girl in these families. Second, where girls are born into such families, we find they are more likely to die before their first birthday. Third, fertility in such families rises, consistent with previous research showing that one way in which families achieve their desired number of sons is by continuing fertility till they have them. Taken together, these results suggest that the reform increased son preference. Using data on self-reported son preference across cohorts of women, we corroborate this – parents are more likely to say they prefer sons over daughters post-reform.
We note that the reforming states are located in South India, which is historically more gender-progressive than North India. On its own, this might have led us to expect families to have responded positively to the reform, but this is not what we find.
Role of sticky social norms
Our findings indicate that being forced by the law to give daughters equal inheritance rights as sons makes parents more averse to having daughters. In the presence of sticky patrilocal social norms whereby married women leave their parents to reside with their husband’s family, parents face the risk that property devolved to daughters may be effectively controlled by her in-laws. Although parents can write a will to override the law, will-writing in India is quite rare, even in urban areas, and a will is contestable in court. These factors will tend to create incentives for parents to continue to prefer to have sons.
We assess the plausibility of this explanation by examining whether patrilocal norms changed following inheritance reform. We do not find any significant impact on the propensity of aged parents to co-reside with adult sons, nor a consistent increase in the likelihood of daughters marrying closer to their natal families.
We find that legislation awarding women rights on par with men to inherit ancestral property intensifies son preference in India. We argue that this is a case where legal reform is frustrated by the persistence of cultural norms. Support for institutionalising women’s economic rights has not been widespread in India. Broad endorsement of women’s rights among men is argued to emerge as the returns to human capital investment rise (Doepke and Tertilt 2009). While average returns to human capital have been rising in India since the 1990s and women’s education has been converging with that of men, women still face significant barriers to translating education into labour market returns (Field et al. 2016). We provide evidence that an often overlooked dimension of social institutions may constrain women’s economic advancement: the convention that sons provide old-age security has not changed and there is no systematically provided State pension to counteract parental dependence on sons (Brulé 2018).
The passage of India’s inheritance reforms was favoured by low-caste women legislators but not women legislators from higher castes (Clots-Figueras 2011). Thus it is unclear that the reform has the support of all women. Changing social norms may require large-scale interventions targeting both girls and boys in the school-going years, when attitudes appear malleable, and before women enter marriage (Dhar et al. 2018).
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