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The World Health Organization estimates that there were 260,000 suicide deaths in India in 2012 alone; twice as many deaths as HIV/AIDS and almost the same number as maternal deaths in young women. Statistics from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) for 1967 onwards reveal that the broad class of “family problems" is the main reported cause of suicide for both men and women. Suicides by married women and men as a response to family conflict are a common occurrence in developing countries. Research has emphasized the cultural ramifications of suicide—relative to developed countries, where suicidal behaviour tends to be interpreted as a symptom of individual mental health, in poorer countries, it is often considered a normal, albeit last-resort response.

Hence, government policies that strengthen the position of women, by altering negotiations between men and women within families (husbands and wives; brothers and sisters), could be one of the factors explaining increasing suicide rates.

In a recent study, we examined policies that affect individual inheritance rights to family property in India and studied the relationship between improved inheritance rights for women and the incidence of suicide among men and women.

The Hindu Succession Act of 1956 was a landmark legislation that conferred inheritance rights on Hindu women, and gave the same rights to sons and daughters in case of intestate death. However, it only applied to separate property (purchased or inherited land from persons other than father, grandfather, etc.). It did not apply to the most common form of ownership—joint family property (inherited ancestral property). Another shortcoming was that it did not cover land ownership stemming from tenancy rights. We use both these exemptions to analyse the effect of better inheritance rights for women on suicides.

Prior to a nationwide 2005 amendment, a few states passed amendments to equalize the inheritance rights of men and women over joint family property—Andhra Pradesh (1986), Tamil Nadu (1989), and Maharashtra and Karnataka (1994). We use this state-level variation in the legal treatment of women over time to examine its effects on suicide rates using NCRB data for 15 major states during 1967-2004. We find that the amendments are associated with an increase in the suicide rates for both men and women, particularly men. This takes into account state and year characteristics as well as the economic and cultural conditions. For both genders, these increases are substantial and mainly come from increases in suicides due to family problems.

Prior to 2005, state laws governed the inheritance rights of women to tenancy land and the landholding restrictions per family units. Several states specified an order of devolution of tenancy rights that strongly favoured men. States also vary in their definition of the family for the landholding limits, with some states not giving any recognition to daughters at all. We analyse this state-level variation in the legal treatment of women in conjunction with land and tenancy reforms to contrast more and less pro-female reforms. The findings are consistent with the effects of the joint property amendments on suicide. Though land reform strongly decreases suicides rates of both genders (which is expected, given the poverty reduction effects), having more pro-women property reform reduces these effects (resulting in a smaller reduction in suicides), especially for men.

Our study presents a theoretical model to interpret these findings. Increasing women’s inheritance rights improves their opportunities outside marriage and is likely to increase their bargaining power relative to their husbands. As such, these policies can be beneficial for women at the cost of men and hence, suicide rates for men could rise. However, more voice and more decision-making power for women can be a source of conflict within families. If escaping situations of intense conflict seems impossibly long or difficult, a person may choose suicide as a quick exit. An increase in family conflict would reinforce the effect of the policy on suicide among men but could also imply an increase in female suicide, even if women are better off due to the policy.

The sociological literature has long recognized the possibility that increased opportunities for women, by challenging traditional roles and raising the importance of negotiation, can accentuate marital discord and result in higher suicide rates, for both men and women. Empirical accounts from developed countries suggest that these effects tend to be mitigated once societal institutions adjust and there is a greater acceptance of the new gender roles. We therefore expect the emerging new cultural norms of gender equality in India to coincide with a decline in female and male suicide rates.

Our research suggests a role for policies that decrease the cost of conflict. Changes in laws, and in societal and family norms to provide support against domestic abuse and ease marital separations might help by decreasing the cost of conflict within marriages.

Siwan Anderson is associate professor of economics at University of British Columbia.

Garance Genicot is associate professor at Georgetown University.

Published with permission from Ideas for India, an economics and policy portal.

Comments are welcome at theirview@livemint.com

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