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The link between rising suicide rates and female property rights in India

by CIFAR Nov 2 / 12
In the last few decades, suicide rates in India have increased at an alarming rate, becoming the second leading cause of death.

New research by economist and CIFAR Associate Siwan Anderson (UBC) in the Institutions, Organizations and Growth program, along with her colleague Garence Genicot at Georgetown University, explores the relationship between the increased incidence of suicide and improved property rights for women.

Woman with yellow sari in India.

Historically, Indian women were not allowed to own property. In 1956, the Hindu Succession Act gave daughters and sons similar property rights, but it was not until the Amendment of 2005 that the definition of property ownership was expanded and women were officially given full rights to joint family property.

The researchers found that these legal changes to women’s property rights decreased the difference between male and female suicide rates in India, but led to an increase in suicides overall. The majority of reported suicide victims were married, and the main cause of suicide was ‘family problems,’ making it reasonable to assume that household conflict had increased.

Using an economic model that examined intra-household bargaining, the researchers found that female property rights led to more household conflict, which in turn led to more suicides of both men and women. The researchers were careful to point out that this does not mean that equalizing property rights was a mistake. Rather, it is an unfortunate consequence that the society’s attitudes are in transition and lag behind changes in the laws.

Their findings mirror patterns witnessed in North America during the 20th century. In the United States, there were more male and female suicides between 1948 and 1963, when negative attitudes about working women prevailed, than in the following decades when female labor participation was more widely accepted.

The researchers conclude that women’s empowerment unfortunately has both positive and negative aspects, and that their economic model captures the complexity of the more subtle realities of increasing women’s rights.