Mumbai: Reforms over 20 years to India’s discriminatory and anti-women inheritance laws, which could have helped raise women’s socio-economic status, appear to have failed to mitigate society’s long-held preference for sons, according to a new study.

Instead, such change of law between 1970 to 1990 has inadvertently led to increased female foeticide and higher female infant-mortality rates, finds the 2018 study that analysed families’ desires for a second child if the first child was a girl.

The findings are supported by the Economic Survey 2017-18, which found an estimated 63 million women--roughly the population of the United Kingdom--‘missing’ in India.

The study finds that girls born after legal reforms were 2-3 percentage points more likely to die before reaching their first birthday, and 9 percentage points more likely to have a younger sibling if the firstborn child was a girl. Legislative changes, coupled with the advent of prenatal ultrasound screenings that enabled sex-selective abortions, intensified the practice of female-foeticide to an extent that made girls 4 percentage points less likely to be born at all.

The study was conducted by researchers at King’s College University, New York University and the University of Essex, and published in the Journal of Development Economics, using data from three rounds of the National Family Health Survey (1991-92, 1998-9 and 2005-6) and the Rural Economic and Demographic Survey (REDS) 2006.

The researchers studied families living in five “early-reformer” states--Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra and Karnataka-- which amended the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, to allow equal inheritance rights for women and men, at different dates between 1970 and 1990. These were compared against a control group of families in states that reformed inheritance laws only in 2005, when the central government mandated equal inheritance rights across the country.

While previous studies had examined the reforms’ impact on women’s position in the marriage “market”, this is the first time researchers have analysed the impact on son-preference, female foeticide and “son-biased fertility stopping behaviour”, the authors said.

Son-preference entrenched, women remain dispossessed

Under the Hindu Succession Act, 1956, only sons had a direct right to ancestral property, excluding daughters from inheritance claims where the father did not leave a will.

From the 1970s onwards, changes in inheritance legislation sought to empower women by strengthening their financial and social position and reducing dependence on male relatives.

The traditional preference for sons was also supposed to lessen, because daughters, backed by possession of the family home, would be able to offer parents security in old age. Equally, this was expected to eradicate the dowry system, a key contributing factor to the perception of a daughter as a financial burden.

Instead, the reforms appear to have had “unintended” effects leading to the “elimination of girls”, as social norms that organise family structures and alliances have not kept pace with changes to the law, the study finds.

“Awarding inheritance rights to women makes parents more averse to having a daughter rather than a son,” the study says. This is because families fear that the cost of having a girl increases because property inherited by women risks falling into the control of her in-laws.

“If you transfer assets to a woman under the Hindu system it will go outside of the family to her marital home,” Pronab Sen, India’s former chief statistician and programme director at the International Growth Centre India Programme, explained this line of thinking to IndiaSpend. “Changes to inheritance law are therefore not likely to improve women’s income, since it’s unlikely the woman would get to control that new asset -- which has now been acquired by her marital family.”

There also remains a strong incentive for parents to continue rewarding a son who works on and develops a family’s land, thus contributing to the family’s “wealth creation” and security for both parties later in life, the study says. Parents perceive the risk of upsetting a son by dispossessing him of the entire property as too high, one that could impact on the quality of their future care.

“In a dominantly agricultural household, the land is most important and comes before anything else,” Sen said. “Parents would want to avoid splitting up the property, making it less productive, since the only way of sharing between siblings is by selling the property and distributing the proceeds.”

The proportion of women inheriting property “did not increase significantly following the reform,” the study says. Although laws now allow women to make legal claims to property, very few make such a move, which is perceived as anti-social and rebellious.

“The family is a close knit-system, girls don’t want to go against parents and brothers and fight for property if they are denied it,” Radha Chellappa, child protection and gender advisor at the NGO Save The Children, told IndiaSpend. “The entire dowry system says that the daughters have already been given a share of the money, so they’re not entitled to the property.”

“Therefore it’s not just about having a law, it’s about effective implementation of it too,” said Chellappa. “This is a civil law, not a criminal one and depends on girls actually going to court and exercising their rights. Right now, I’m not sure this is actually happening.”

Sex-selective births increase, female infant mortality higher

Imported ultrasound machines in the 1980s enabled families to discover a foetus’ sex before its birth, allowing sex-selective abortion, or female foeticide.

As a result, the probability of girl babies being born fell by up to 4 percentage points in states where parents were both exposed to inheritance laws and ultrasound was available, when the first-born child was a girl, when compared with the control group, the study says.

This indicates that families still showed long-held cultural preference for sons, the study says, adding that the magnitude of decline in the number of girls born--which “lies outside the range regarded as consistent with biological variation or slow-changing environmental factors”--shows a deliberate response to the change in inheritance laws.

Since foeticide is a “conscious and staged act”, it is a “clean measure of parents’ preferences for having sons rather than daughters,” the study says.

In addition to eliminating girls through pre-birth sex manipulation, there is evidence that parents rid themselves of girl children by neglect, thus adjusting their household sex-composition despite legislative reforms.

There was a 2-3 percentage point increase in the number of female babies dying before their first birthday, where the first child was a girl, in post-reform and post-ultrasound states. Denying access to medical treatment and withholding food and nourishment are common methods employed to bring about premature death in unwanted children, other studies have shown.

Families were also found to be “extending their fertility”--having children at later ages--in attempts to ensure there is a boy in the family, despite inheritance reforms supposedly equalising both sexes in terms of economic standing.

Families where the first-born was a girl were 9 percentage points more likely to have a younger sibling (12% of the sample mean), than families where the first child was a boy, the study found. This, combined with the previous results, suggests that the post-reform and post-ultrasound environment inadvertently “intensified son preference in fertility”, rather than having the opposite and intended effect.

Patrilocal norms stick, son preference remains

Up to 77% of Indian parents expect to live with their sons in old age, following a ‘patrilocal’ system where sons remain in the family home after marriage while daughters leave to join their in-laws. As per this system, by remaining in and working on the ancestral land, plus caring for parents in old age, the son is usually ‘rewarded’ by inheriting the entire property after the parents’ death.

Legal reforms mandating that parents must now share equal portions of the ancestral property with both sons and daughters appear to have not changed this dynamic, the study says.

Son preference remains the status quo, suggesting that patriarchal traditions exert a stronger force on parents than legislation correcting historical gender biases.

A scant public-pension system and social security net is a key reason why co-residence with sons, as well as son preference generally, has not changed, the study suggests. No more than 35% of India’s elderly population are currently covered by pensions, with close to a third, or 39 million continuing to work in lieu of an adequate social security net, IndiaSpend reported in April 2017.

The way forward

In light of persistent biases, how can discrimination against women be reduced and their socio-economic position be elevated?

“I do not doubt the necessity or effectiveness in the long run of such legislation but we need a multi-prong effort focused on empowerment, education and targeted social welfare schemes that work at various levels in society for adult women,” Rajeshwari Deshpande, professor in the department of politics and public administration, University of Pune, told IndiaSpend. “Although [legislative reform] is perceived as a property issue, it’s not really -- there’s a deeply ingrained internalised bias in favour of the male child which needs to be addressed.”

(Sanghera is a writer and researcher with IndiaSpend.)

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