Women, Power, Property… Progress? A Discussion with Rachel Brulé

By Maria Santarelli

On Friday December 11, the Global Development Policy Center (GDP Center) hosted a webinar to launch the new book from Rachel Brulé, Assistant Professor of Global Development Policy at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, “Women, Power, and Property: the Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India.

The book investigates the role of female elected local officials in fighting for gender equality and their ability to make property rights reforms relevant tools for women’s economic empowerment in India. The webinar was moderated by Patricia Cortes, Associate Director of the Human Capital Initiative and Associate Professor at the Boston University Questrom School of Business.

The question at the heart of Brulé’s work is how gender equality can be achieved, despite women’s persistent political and economic exclusion? Brulé began by presenting a visualization of female political representation (percentage of female mayors in red) and women’s economic inclusion (the Women, Business, and Law Index in blue) across the contemporary world:

Figure 1: Female Political and Economic Exclusion

Source: “Women, Power, and Property: The Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India,” Rachel Brulé, Cambridge University Press, October 2020.

In India, attempts to close the gender gap have leveraged political quotas and property reforms. A 1993 Constitutional Amendment imposed a one-third reservation for female elected heads of newly created village councils, while reforms staggered between 1976-2005, known as the Hindu Succession Act Amendments, expanded daughters’ rights to claim shares of ancestral land on par with brothers.

Despite “there being more elected women in India than in the rest of the world put together,” women’s economic challenges remain severe. Brulé explained that in India, only 12.9 percent of women own land, 66 percent of court cases concern land rights, and 53 percent of land disputes are fought within families.

Brulé provided evidence that the role of women as village leaders is essential to mobilizing female constituents, reallocating resources, and enforcing fundamental economic rights. For example, her research found that the advocacy work by female heads of villages enabled eligible daughters to leverage their legal rights to inherit land at crucial stages of their lives.

Indeed, through a combination of a causally-identified research design, ethnographic-style field research, quantitative data collection and analysis with extensive robustness checks, Brulé demonstrated that in the presence of female gatekeepers, eligible daughters are more likely to inherit shares of land, translating into a rise of women’s ownership of crucial economic resources. In the absence of female gatekeepers, India’s property rights reform would have no impact on the likelihood of women inheriting land.

Figure 2: Women’s Probability of Inheritance, Coefficient Sizes

Source: “Women, Power, and Property: The Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India”, Rachel Brulé, Cambridge University Press, October 2020.

Brulé also found that bargaining power within households can explain important variation in the impact of female representation.

For women without bargaining power in their households – those over 20 years of age and thus likely already married – eligibility for gender-equal property rights and access to female gatekeepers diminishes their likelihood of inheriting land by 9-10 percentage points, as compared to ineligible women without access to female representatives.

“Resistance to females’ claims to property inheritance is concentrated in this subset of women whose claims are costly. However, we see empowerment when bargaining is possible and daughters have access to female gatekeepers’ support,” Brulé explained.

Figure 3: Women’s Inheritance by Bargaining Power, Net Effect

Source: “Women, Power, and Property: The Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India”, Rachel Brulé, Cambridge University Press, October 2020.

On the optimistic side, Brulé found that for the subset of women with bargaining power – those less than 20 years at the time they receive gender-equal inheritance rights and thus more likely to be unmarried – are able to use this power with the help of female local representatives.

Often, women with bargaining power may renounce monetary dowry in exchange for gaining inheritance rights. Although dowry exchange has been illegal since 1961, it remains a widespread practice. These women are at least 9 percentage points more likely to inherit land, and 10-28 percentage points less likely to receive dowry, compared to ineligible women without female representatives.

Brulé commented that the presence of property rights – and the absence of dowry – each reduce the likelihood that women will endure extensive domestic violence and extortion (for even larger dowries after marriage).

Figure 4: Returns to Bargaining Power: Women’s Dowry 

Source: “Women, Power, and Property: The Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India”, Rachel Brulé, Cambridge University Press, October 2020.

Through her findings, Brulé demonstrated that female gatekeepers play a crucial role in enabling women to renegotiate rights and control over resources, especially at crucial stages of their lives, such as marriage negotiations.

“I want to end with a note of caution, because we also see very significant backlash, for instance by brothers, who traditionally exclusively inherit property in India,” Brulé pointed out, noting findings that there is a decreasing number of sons co-residing and caring for their older parents when they are exposed to female gatekeepers.

To conclude, Brulé showed that women’s political representation enables female citizens to demand enforcement of economic rights and women’s economic empowerment is not a zero-sum game: “New rights can make everyone better off, because they expand the pie of resources households have access to, if they enable daughters to negotiate.”

Rachel Brulé’s “Women, Power, and Property: the Paradox of Gender Equality Laws in India” is published by Cambridge University Press.