There is a saying in India: “A mother is a school; preparing her is like preparing a good nation.” Divya Balasubramaniam, Ph.D., assistant professor of economics, dives into this notion in her current research by critically examining the role that state law plays in female empowerment and access to prenatal care.

The world’s largest democracy, India boasts a population of over 1.21 billion people, all of whom are divided into castes ranging from low to high. According to Balasubramaniam, the subcontinent is a rich context for studying social justice issues given its rigid social divisions and population diversity. Some of the country’s political challenges — how to reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; promote gender equality and empower women — appear on the United Nation’s Millennium Developmental Goals, a set of global resolutions dedicated to meeting the needs of the world’s poorest peoples, agreed upon by all nations.

“As India addresses these problems,” she says, “the country can begin a conversation about global justice.”

Balasubramaniam is investigating the ability of disenfranchised groups — such as those in lower castes or women — to access public services. Her research looks at the Hindu Succession Act and its more recent amendments. This legislation, which varies by state, dictates whether women can inherit ancestral property. Using these regulations as a proxy, Balasubramaniam is analyzing unintended consequences to answer a new question for India: How does law and society empower or weaken women’s decision-making ability? 

“My research focuses on state-by-state succession law as a determinate of whether or not pregnant women seek prenatal care,” says Balasubramaniam. “If a woman is subjected to this law, and can inherit property, does she make decisions differently than a woman in a state without a succession law?”

Using a cross-section of individual-level data pooled from The National Family Health Survey, taken in 1998-99 and 2004-05, Balasubramaniam looked at whether women living in states with amended laws that allow females to inherit their ancestral property — there are currently five — have a higher probability of seeking prenatal care. This state-by-state data analysis shows the number of Indian women who sought prenatal care and the number of those who did not. 

Adopting the natural experiment methodology, which is an examination of an event as it occurs in real time, rather than in a controlled experiment, Balsubramanian posits a relationship between these amendments and female health outcomes. Her preliminary results, presented in 2014 to the Southern Economic Association in Atlanta, Ga., suggests that women who live in states with amended laws promoting gender equality tend to have a higher probability of seeking prenatal healthcare relative to women who live in states without this legislation. 

Balasubramaniam says this illustrates that policy directly influences female empowerment, which in this context, affects the health of both mothers and children. “A policy that is egalitarian can have direct and indirect implications for everyday people,” she adds.

“Empowering women changes their sense of autonomy, behavior in the household, education and health outcomes, and family development,” Balasubramanian continues. “Financial empowerment, such as inheriting ancestral property, changes the way women plan for the future and the importance they place on their children’s health.

“Women have a legacy: Their focus on prenatal care shows they are planning for a future beyond the next generation.”

Empowering a mother empowers a nation, after all.

— Katie Smith ’15