I started to send this out as a series of tweets, but decided it was worth something a bit longer. I haven’t had much time to blog over the last 9 months, but perhaps this summer will get me writing again…
A new Anderson & Genicot paper finds that codifying inheritance rights to property for women in India lead to increased suicide rates for both men and women. The paper is based on an intrahousehold bargaining framework and rests on the mechanism whereby if women are seemingly arbitrarily given more power in relationships via more access to capital, that might cause stress and thus lead to suicide by men. It also might be that as men inherit smaller shares of their parents’ assets, it is essentially an unexpected shock and could cause financial stress that could lead to suicide. There is precedent for this interpretation in the literature, particularly in sociology.
For women, the argument to me is less clear. The inherited property, though perhaps causing additional marital discord or stress, is also 1) an increase in potential income–which should theoretically decrease overall stress levels, and 2) a better outside option, leaving women more free to leave a relationship. If either of these hold, they should actually lead to a decrease in the suicide rate.
Also, suicide rates are not just going up for married men and women. The WHO recently announced that suicide is the biggest killer of adolescent girls worldwide. Even though adolescent girls can inherit property in India (from what I can tell, there is no bar based on age of majority), they’re probably not the largest group of inheritors. So, do we believe that suicide rates for adolescent girls are totally unrelated to suicide rates for older women and men? I doubt it, especially given a large body of work that posits that suicide rates may be influenced by media coverage of suicide (for example). That suicide is driven by the inheritance law requires us to believe they are mostly unrelated. Or that girls are so stressed about the idea of one day owning and running a farm that they check out early.
While the empirical work appears to be very strong in the Anderson and Genicot paper, I’m not sold on the theoretical mechanism. Moving towards gender equality in places with strong traditional gender roles and norms is likely to put stress on many individuals. Reallocation of profits and assets will also understandably cause unexpected wealth shocks for both men and women and could lead to marital discord, but it could also lead to stronger, more independent women. Further, higher rates of suicide among groups that are likely unaffected by the law change suggest something unobserved is affecting suicide rates.