Inheritance Reform, Female Empowerment, and Intergenerational Effects: Theory and Evidence from India

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Land ownership is an important determinant of intra-household bargaining power in low-income countries, yet women are systematically barred from inheriting land. Granting equal access to land tenuring has the potential to improve women's ability to make decisions within the household, particularly regarding their children. This dissertation examines the effect of women’s land inheritance rights on fertility and child mortality in India. I explore this topic theoretically and empirically in three main chapters.

In the first chapter I develop a household bargaining model in which granting mothers inheritance rights may affect child mortality and fertility through a direct land channel and an indirect human capital channel. The model shows how an exogenous change in inheritance rights decreases fertility and has an ambiguous effect on child mortality for some households due to two competing effects. One is an empowerment effect that results from an increase to women's bargaining power and reduces child mortality. The second is an income effect that increases child mortality and results from an increase in the pooled unearned income of the household. Which effect dominates is an empirical question.

In the second chapter I empirically estimate the effect of the reforms as they operate through each channel using quasi-random variation from a natural experiment in which four Indian states enacted equal rights for women to inherit joint family property between 1986 and 1994. I construct difference-in-differences estimators using variation in eligibility across marriage cohorts and religions. Using retrospective life history and fertility history data, hazard model estimates show that the reforms reduced child mortality through the land channel and reduced fertility through the human capital channel. Children with eligible mothers have a 57% lower hazard of dying before age five. Eligible women are more likely to delay their first birth and have a 32% lower hazard of having more than two children. The results correspond to 344,169 children who were saved between the reform passage years and 2005, the survey collection year.

In the third chapter I use a different dataset to identify the specific subset of households for which the theoretical model generates an ambiguous prediction. I directly test the prediction using an event study difference-in-differences model that exploits variation in eligibility across states and multiple pre- and post-reform marriage cohorts. I find that household level child mortality decreases by 2.2 percentage points, indicating that the empowerment effect dominates the income effect.