Nabaneeta Biswas is a PhD candidate in Economics at the University of Georgia Terry College of Business and is currently on the job market.
Millions of girls have disappeared from India’s child population as a consequence of strong parental preference for male children. Widespread selection of offspring gender through abortion of female fetuses, infanticide, and neglect of female infants has distorted the gender balance at birth and increased the mortality of female infants relative to male (Bhalotra and Cochrane 2010, Kishor 1993). The ensuing gender gap in the under-six population has intensified more rapidly since the 1980s, assisted by the arrival of ultrasound technology and a fall in desired family size. Despite public policies and laws protecting girls’ right to life, their survival disadvantage has prevailed, enlarging the female deficit among children under age six to over 7 million as of 2011. Such large-scale assault on girls has deepened the prevailing shortage of marriageable women and encouraged socially disruptive activities like bride trafficking and forced polyandry (Anand 2014).
Son preference and the bias against girls are rational responses to patriarchy, conservative gender roles, and the economic burden of dowry (Purewal 2010, Patel 2007). These social norms and customs make sons culturally and economically more valuable than daughters. Additionally, men’s societal dominance and an overarching gender inequality extending to the economic and political domain strengthen the negative attitude towards girls. .
Political representation, such as the holding of elected offices at local and national levels by a member of a gender or ethnic group, is considered an important means of protecting the rights and interests of disadvantaged or politically under-represented groups like women. In addition to voicing women’s needs in the public domain, political representation challenges existing gender stereotypes, especially in male dominated societies (Iyer et al 2012, Bhalotra and Clots-Figueras 2014, Beaman et al. 2012). Hence, the presence of women in office can benefit women and girls through the dual channels of policy and perception. Yet its impact on girls’ survival disadvantage is largely ignored by the literature on sex selection.
Political Economy Explanation for the Female Survival Disadvantage
In my job market paper, I investigate how female presence in India’s elected offices affects prenatal and postnatal survival of girls. This is the first study to link women’s electoral success and sex selection in India. Female victory in competitive races and in a male domain like politics challenges society’s perception of gender roles and, indirectly, the bias against girls. Besides, these women’s membership in the state’s highest legislative body grants them the authority to influence policy choice or implementation in favor of girls. The literature considers the effect of women’s political reservations at the sub-state level, and finds that exposure to appointed female leaders in local administration lowers sex-selection among rural households through a change in perception (Kalsi 2013). My study builds on these findings, shedding light on the institutional mechanisms within political economy and the overall political design that affects outcomes for girls.
My analysis exploits variation in female representation in state governments between 1977-2004, focusing on the share of women elected to state assemblies from each district. Using the fertility history of 500,000 mothers, I estimate changes in the probability of a female birth and infant mortality of girls in different years and under different gender composition of politicians in the district. To address potential endogeneity of female representation I focus on female victories in close man-woman elections, leveraging the plausible gender randomness of the outcome of such elections. I find that an increase in the share of female legislators lowers the likelihood of a female birth. Girls’ increased risk of survival to birth is primarily driven by fertility declines that increase prenatal sex selection by couples (Jayachandran 2014). In response to a one standard deviation increase in the share of female legislators, the birth rate falls by 0.7 percentage points and the likelihood of a female birth by 0.5 percentage points with no impact on the probability of male birth. Meanwhile, increased female representation in political office improves the outreach of federal birth control programs and empowers the average woman to take control of her fertility.
On the other hand, women’s electoral success improves postnatal survival of girls relative to boys. The enhanced survival of female infants ensues from a quality-quantity tradeoff (Hu and Schlosser 2015). By suppressing the birth of girls, the political regime lowers postnatal discrimination of the girls that are carried to term. With the birth of unwanted daughters averted, the girls that are born receive proper nourishment and post-birth care. I find increased parental investment in girls relative to boys with female representation, particularly in breastfeeding duration and tuberculosis vaccinations.
Heterogeneous Impact of Elected Women
While the overall impact of elected women on the probability of female births is negative, the effect qualitatively varies with the timing of nationwide initiatives favoring women and girls. I show that the ability of female legislators to improve outcomes for girls is largely dependent on the prevailing political and policy regime. Following the expansive reservation of local political seats (below state level) for women in the 1990s, I find a positive impact of female legislators on the number of female births. A one standard deviation increase in the district share of assembly seats won by women leads to seven additional female births per 100 male births. By boosting female presence in local administration, the political reform strengthens the political voice of women legislators and enables them to benefit girls.
Similar to the reservation policy, the impact of female legislators on female births is heterogeneous before and after a law prohibiting fetal sex diagnosis in the country. The 1996 nationwide ban prevents the use of modern reproductive technology to determine the sex of the child prior to birth. By institutionalizing the protection of girls, the regulation enables female legislators to raise the probability of a female birth relative to the pre-ban period. A one standard deviation increase in the district share of female state politicians leads to six additional female births per 100 male births. Though prenatal sex selection continues despite the regulation, the enforcement of the ban seems to improve with female representation in district administration.
Implications for Policy and Research
My study reveals that female victory in state legislatures advances the interests of women through fertility declines but fails to benefit girls owing to the cultural setting. Partly responsible is the prominent gender hierarchy in Indian politics that limits women’s political voice. The male hegemony is more prominent at higher platforms of governance like state assembly, where elected women constitute a small share of the collective membership. The low numbers and poor visibility of female legislators at the local level also limits any role model effect of their political status. This calls for increasing female participation at these levels and thus, strengthens the case for a bill proposing women’s political reservation in state legislatures.
My study also highlights how a broader policy commitment towards uplifting women’s status affects the political structure. Appropriate interventions enable female legislators to lower girls’ survival disadvantage while their higher share in administration enhances the execution of laws protecting girls. These findings motivate further research on the links between women’s political agency and the policy framework for girls and women. Apart from its relevance for policy design and performance, such studies further our understanding of the avenues of gender development in India.