For women in much of the developing world, gender discrimination often takes on the form of unequal inheritance and property rights, leaving them unable to inherit property and without an avenue to access economic opportunities. Where reforms have been made, it’s been unclear if they have done any good in a real sense due to poor enforcement, rigid social norms and other methods of disenfranchising women.

In her paper “Women’s Inheritance Rights and Bargaining Power: Evidence from Kenya,” Wharton real estate professor Mariaflavia Harari sought to determine if a 1981 change in the country’s succession laws and a subsequent 1990 amendment had any positive human capital effects on women. Such studies had been done in other nations but none in sub-Saharan Africa, she says, so she wanted to determine if the legal reforms helped strengthen women’s empowerment.

Harari was initially doubtful she would find positive effects on women because of legal enforcement issues. The best laws are still dependent on local judges who will apply them fairly, she says, and generations of cultural norms left her doubtful the reforms would take hold.

“Because of the enforcement issues, [I thought] it would be hard for the reform to have bite,” she says. “Even if it did, it’s not obvious that it would go in a direction that was beneficial to women.”

Using data from the Kenyan Demographic and Health Surveys, Harari was able to show significant improvement for women in several areas, especially their education and health. Women were more educated, both in absolute terms and relative to men; they were more likely to get medical assistance at birth and receive postpartum care; they were less likely to undergo female genital mutilation, and they were more likely to delay marriage.

The Complex Case

Kenya provided a curious case for Harari to study. Property rights there had been defined by a “complex interplay of customary law, statutory law and Islamic law,” she writes, allowing for different applications of inheritance and other family law across different tribes.

The 1981 Law of Succession was passed to merge separate inheritance law schemes into one statue that applied uniformly to all citizens. The law established equal inheritance rights for male and female children, regardless of whether they were married or unmarried. Most Kenyans die without a will (it’s considered bad luck in the country to have one, Harari says) and a court could apply the law in cases where a will did not establish reasonable support for their dependents.

The uniformity of the statue was short-lived, however. In 1990, the law was amended to exempt Muslims after it created “one of the moments of maximum tension” in the country’s history. The tension resulted from Muslims seeking to reinforce and expand the role of Kadhi courts and Christians trying to limit special rights afforded to Islam.

After the amendment, Muslims could once again, in inheritance matters, apply Koranic law, which creates fixed shares of an estate that give twice as much to sons as daughters.

“It was the instance of redefining the scope of the application of religious law for Muslims [that caused the tension],” she says. “They felt it was cheating.”

But this unique series of policy changes — that applied differentially to Muslims and non-Muslims — provides an interesting “natural experiment” to investigate the impacts of improved legal inheritance rights. By comparing outcomes of Christian and Muslim women before the reform, after the initial reform and after the subsequent amendment, data from Kenyan surveys shows that, even post-amendment, the law had a positive effect.

“After the reform, women were better off under a variety of dimensions.”

Women, now able to inherit from their parents, were put in a stronger bargaining position within their marriages and were more likely to participate in family decisions, she says. Their ability to control at least some family resources led to the very real possibility that a wife could divorce her husband — an option that, until the reform, had little bite behind its bark.

“If she doesn’t inherit, she doesn’t have any resources so it puts her in a relatively weaker position in terms of the bargaining process,” Harari notes. “If she knows she can inherit, she has a better outside option, which makes a potential divorce threat more credible.… In practice, you may never get to the point where the marriage dissolves. For this to work, all you need is a credible threat.”

‘A Meaningful Effect’

Harari also posited that when the law changed, parents might compensate for their sons receiving less of an inheritance by investing more human capital in their male heirs — focusing more on their education and health, for example, than on that of their daughters.

While possible in theory, this did not happen in practice, she says, as education and health care levels improved markedly for women.

“I was surprised to find out it had a meaningful effect,” she says. “It was a reform on paper, but the social norms were strongly opposing it.”

More than three decades of data gave Harari a strong handle on the medium-run effects of the inheritance law change, but it will take another few decades before long-term effects become clear, she says. Harari also cautioned against applying the results of her Kenyan study to other countries as the cultural norms can be drastically different.

“It’s really hard to extrapolate it in a different context,” she says. “It’s seen as a success story, but in a different context, you might get a different answer.”