Quotas for women in government have swept the world as a revolutionary tool to further female political inclusion.

Worldwide, the introduction of quotas for women in legislatures and political parties over the past two decades has doubled the average share of female parliamentarians. However, quotas remain controversial. Indeed, we know very little about the net ability of electoral quotas to render the individuals they represent and society overall better off.

Focussing on contemporary India, I explore how quotas affect enforcement of gender equalising economic reforms. In a nutshell, I find that gender quotas can create incentives for enduring economic and social equality if they provide women with resources to pursue enforcement of these rights in ways that open space for all parties to benefit.

My specific focus is the right of women to inherit property. Land inheritance provides the firmest guarantee of economic stability in much of the world. Where women have land rights, evidence shows they exert greater authority in the household, are less likely to experience domestic violence, have healthier children, and farm agricultural land more effectively, yielding greater output for their entire household.

In other words, where women inherit land we see benefits for all. Yet, women face particular barriers to procuring and safeguarding property ownership. In India, where three quarters of women currently derive their income from agriculture, they own less than 13 per cent of land.

I build and test a theory to explain the connection between political representation and economic empowerment. I argue that quotas can improve the enforcement of women’s economic rights, though a broader ecosystem of conservative social norms often generates backlash against (potential) beneficiaries. Specifically, conflict over scarce property resources encourages violence (from intimidation of women to renounce valuable land rights, to unwillingness to care for them at vulnerable points: infancy, child birth, or old age, to female infanticide), resulting in 63 million women estimated as “missing” from India’s population in 2018.

Quotas are most helpful for younger women who are able to renegotiate resource distribution across multiple domains — specifically land and dowry — which reduces the cost to men and the subsequent backlash. Indeed, one of my important findings is to show how women’s ability to leverage political power in the service of inclusion leads to enduring empowerment.

Electoral quotas for women in India’s local government, mandated by the 73rd and 74th constitutional amendments as of 1993, adopt a three-tiered system with “reservations” for women as heads (Pradhans or Sarpanches) of local government councils (Gram Panchayats). At least one-third of these elected positions were to be “reserved” exclusively for female candidates in a given election.

I use India’s quasi-random implementation of these reservations to identify the impact of female representation on enforcement of historic reforms granting Hindu women equal rights to inherit property. These reforms began at the State level in 1976 and culminated in the 2005 national amendment to the Hindu Succession Act, granting roughly 400 million daughters rights to inherit ancestral property on par with sons.

For my analysis, I leverage the 2006 Rural Economic Demographic Survey (REDS), collected by the NCAER, as well as extensive field research and archival study based primarily in a pioneer reform state: Andhra Pradesh. For my empirical analysis, I leverage individual-level records of land inheritance and political participation for 8,500 households in 17 States.

I find that pre-inheritance reform, reservations increase the frequency and magnitude of female inheritance. Women with fathers who die after reservations are six percentage points more likely to inherit land — increasing the frequency of female inheritance from 10.3 per cent (for landed Hindu families in States that implement reservations randomly) to 16.3 per cent.

This is meaningful: within India’s population of 1.34 billion, where over 92 per cent of the rural population — 67 per cent of India — live in landholding families, implies 23.6 million more women would inherit land. In contrast, post-reform reservations result in fewer women inheriting land.

Amongst women eligible for equal rights to ancestral land, inheritance is predicted to be only half as high for those with versus without female-led local governments. What explains these unintended consequences of reform? I argue that women’s political agency fractures, then reconstructs, the gendered division between public and private spheres that remains common practice across much of rural India.

Bargaining power

As women become more present in political institutions and more adept at negotiating power in public and private domains, official capacity to hear and respond to their domains has infinitely enlarged. Yet only a subset of women can translate greater public, political voice into bargaining power for private, ancestral property.

My fieldwork suggested that marriage negotiations are moments when women have maximal voice over the natal family’s distribution of resources. I capture the likelihood of women’s ability to bargain for rights across domains — including inheritance and dowry — as based on women’s age at reform.

Indeed, women who bear the brunt of backlash to reform are those who are likely already married — with monetary dowry given to marital families in their names — when they receive equal inheritance rights. For these women, female representation, which enables them to claim inheritance rights, spurs resistance by natal families who view their demands as a “double burden.”

In contrast, for women entering marriage negotiations with gender-equal rights, female heads of government make them 15-19 percentage points more likely to inherit land. The younger a woman is at the time she receives equal rights, the more able she is to leverage female political power in the service of inheritance. This represents a net gain for women, whom I find part with dowry given to in-laws in favour of land titled in their own names.

In addition, female elected leaders increase women’s ability to demand effective enforcement of economic rights via mobilising political participation and women’s social solidarity. Reservations also result in a clear expression of backlash amongst men: increased willingness to sanction violent punishment of daughters and their marital families for marriage decisions of which fathers do not approve.

Overall, it is not sufficient to simply decree equality via economic reform. Neither is it adequate to solely decentralise decision-making to a broader, more inclusive set of local citizens. Substantive equality requires major political, economic, and social adjustments. In particular, the problem of traditional entitlements — here, men’s privileged access to rights and resources — must be tackled directly. Yet, new rights can improve collective welfare if we recognise the opportunities they create to expand the “pie” for all.

The writer is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at New York University Abu Dhabi. This article is by special arrangement with the Centre for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.