How inheritance laws put women at a disadvantage
Recent figures show that in 34 countries, the inheritance rights of daughters are not equal to those of sons.
Women’s legal inability to inherit equal property as men can significantly undermine her economic security, independence, and economic opportunities, because inheritance remains one of the main channels through which women can acquire and control property.
According to the World Bank Gender Equality Report, “the most promising policies to increase women’s voices in households centre on reforming the legal framework […]: Land laws and aspects of family law that govern marriage, divorce, and disposal of property are particularly important.”
The importance of family law for household bargaining power has been illustrated in studies, which showed the intra-household distribution of power to be affected by outside opportunities which includes legislation on the assignment of property rights in the case of divorce and bequests.
Economists have been studying the impact of legal reforms of inheritance rights of women, and found it to be bestowing women with greater intra-household bargaining power and enhancing their welfare. The 1981 Kenyan reform of inheritance laws for women found that women were more likely to participate in family decisions due to the reform, providing evidence of increased bargaining power.
Studying the effect of gender-progressive changes in inheritance laws by the Indian Hindu Succession Amendment Act (2005), it was found that the reform increased female education, autonomy, labour supply, and bargaining power. Researchers also found robust increase in women’s age at the time of marriage relative to men, indicating a strong welfare-enhancing effect of inheritance rights on marriage market outcomes.
The reform also resulted in significant increases in female education, illustrating that legal barriers to equal inheritance by women often puts women at a strong disadvantage, and it may even be at the root of broader patterns of inequality.
Recent research even suggests that security and ownership of land through inheritance decreases the risk of domestic violence for some women, because economic independence means they are empowered to leave an abusive relationship.
If we take Bangladesh, although the statutory laws grant men and women equal rights to the purchase of land, women are at a huge disadvantage, because the country’s inheritance laws are governed by Shariah law, giving daughters half the inheritance rights of sons.
Legal reform of women’s inheritance rights can act as a powerful low-cost lever to reduce gender discrimination, and improve a wide range of socio-economic outcomes.
In 2011, the government of Bangladesh, in a courageous move, proposed equal inheritance rights regardless of gender as part of its National Women Development Policy. However, the policy was met with such strong protests by Islamic fundamentalists that the government had to give in to their demands.
Traditionally, most countries, even the US, have had gender-discriminatory inheritance laws, but they have reformed their laws with time. If we look at our neighbouring country India before 2005, most states, while giving equal share to daughter and sons, gave only sons the right to inherit joint family property.
In 2005, India passed the Hindu Succession Amendment Act, which gave daughters of Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, and Buddhists equal rights of inheritance in all forms of property.
Muslim-majority countries have been fierce in resisting equal inheritance laws and reluctant to evolve with time. Taking the case of Kenya, the 1981 reform made inheritance a matter of statutory law and established equal inheritance rights for men and women regardless of religious affiliation.
However, this policy was met with such severe protests from fundamentalists that in 1990, only for Muslims, the inheritance laws had to be reverted back to gender discriminatory inheritance laws based on the Shariah.
Also, Muslims in India, just like Bangladeshi daughters, still face gender discriminatory inheritance rights according to Shariah principles, unlike their counterparts of other religious affiliations.
Proponents of Shariah law argue that gender discriminatory inheritance rights are fair because males often bear a larger share of household expenses. Going by this argument, unequal pay for the same work based on gender is also justified, since males are expected to bear a larger portion of household expenses.
Bangladesh does not follow Shariah law when it comes to criminal law, then why follow gender discriminatory Shariah laws in matters of inheritance, marriage, and divorce? It is the 21st century, and we must evolve with time and reform these discriminatory laws.
As the famous development economist Duflo says, equality between men and women in all aspects of life is not only desirable for equity, but also on economic efficiency grounds.
Maliha Ahmed previously worked in research at BIDS and BIGD. She is currently pursuing her PhD in Economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.