The impact of Female political leaders goes beyond their policies. One way it occurs is through the role model effect: Public exposure to women at the top has been shown to reduce social bias and improve living conditions for women. Studies have shown that female political leadership increases the likelihood that a woman is elected again, that crimes against women are less likely to go unreported, and that parents state higher aspirations for their daughters.
The improved status of women through female leadership has even been shown to increase the survival of vulnerable girls in societies with a preference for sons. In a forthcoming study in the Journal of Development Economics, I show that exposure to female leadership in rural India is associated with improved survival of high-birth-order girls who would otherwise be more likely to die young.
The phenomenon of “missing women” is observed in several Asian countries because female fetuses are either aborted or because female infants die young due to neglect or infanticide. This is largely due to families wishing to secure at least one boy in the family while also striving to ensure that the size of the family doesn’t become too large. In general, the practice does not affect the firstborn because there will be more opportunities to have boys even if a girl arrives first. This is reflected in the second round of the District Level Household & Facility Survey, which covers over 620,000 Indian households and includes detailed information on married women’s fertility history. Among children born between 1987 and 1992 in rural India, there were 106 boys per 100 girls at the first birth order. For the second, that number grew slightly, to 107 boys for every 100 girls. But for the third birth order or greater, the difference jumped to 117 boys per 100 girls. (For comparison, the natural sex ratio at birth is believed to be 105 boys per 100 girls.)
But things changed after 1992. My estimates imply that an Indian law, which drastically increased female leadership, helped save the lives of approximately 900,000–1,800,000 high-birth-order girls born between 1992 and 2004.
The 73rd Amendment to India’s constitution, ratified in 1993, provides a unique opportunity to estimate the effects of female leadership on sex selection. The amendment required Indian states to develop rural political bodies at the village, block, and district levels. Each level was required to reserve one-third of all political seats for women. While states were required to abide by the law within two years, in practice Indian states took a varying amount of time to implement the policy. For example, the first of the 18 major states to have an election that reserved seats for women did so in 1992, while the last major state did so in 2001.
The data from rural India reveals that significantly more high-birth-order girls were still alive if they were born after their particular state had reserved seats for women. The finding does not change if additional controls for the child’s district, yearly trends, and various household level characteristics (such as a proxy for income, mother’s age, and religion) are included.
Either a reduction in sex-selective abortions or an increase in the survival rate of high-birth-order girls could explain these results. To figure out which explanation was most likely to be true, I examined factors including infant mortality rates and maternal demographic information. I found that infant mortality rates fell for high-birth-order girls during this time period, and that groups least likely to use sex-selective abortions (illiterate and poor mothers) were driving the results. These findings are consistent with the explanation that more high-birth-order girls are surviving, rather than that sex-selective abortions are decreasing.
The data is important. But beyond it, policy makers need to understand how female leadership improved the survival of vulnerable girls if they wish to replicate these effects in other areas. One possibility is that, according to research, women leaders are known to shift policymaking toward female interests. Thus, policies that alter health services available to girls or fertility services available to mothers could explain the results. Another explanation could be that the visibility of powerful female leaders enhances female status within a society, and thus improves the care daughters receive at home.
Studying the proximity to female leaders could help give some answers. As part of the law, one-third of all political seats created by the amendment were reserved for women, including the top position of district chairperson. (Which districts’ chairperson roles were reserved for women was largely decided at random, which is useful from a research perspective.) Surprisingly, though, a district chairperson seat being reserved for a woman does not affect the survival of high-birth-order girls in rural areas. In fact, lower-level female leaders, at the village or block level, are likely important in explaining the results discussed above for rural India. This makes sense because village leaders interact directly with the local population, while the district leaders only provide a link to the block-level rural body.
There is a difference in the importance of district chairpersons when it comes to urban families, however. There are reasons to believe that district-level chairpersons are more visible in cities. For one, readership of newspapers is much more prevalent in urban India, according to the 2005–2006 National Family Health Survey, and district-level politicians are regularly featured. Moreover, the offices at the district level are often located in urban areas. Interestingly, the data shows that only urban areas saw an increase in the survival of high-birth-order girls born during a female district chairperson’s five-year term. Since the 73rd Amendment created all three levels of local bodies to overlook the development of rural India, the district chairperson’s policies did not affect urban areas. Visibility of female chairpersons alone could explain the results in urban India.
In both rural and urban areas, then, the effects seem to be explained by the level of female leadership that is most visible. Furthermore, there is no evidence that policies enacted by female politicians are driving the results. This is remarkable in that just being exposed to female politicians is enough to challenge a generationally entrenched son preference that rationalizes poor treatment of girls.
The finding that the visibility of powerful female leaders can improve distorted sex ratios in societies with male preference is of growing importance. If a society does not change its views about women in general, girls that live past birth may continue to be discriminated against and potentially die young. And more broadly, this research shows that policies that emphasize gender parity in one area — government — can have positive, outsize effects in others.