An improved status of women through female leadership can increase the survival of vulnerable girls in societies with a preference for sons, says a new study published in ‘Harvard Business Review.’

The article is entitled “How One Law Measurably Lifted the Status of Women in India”. It shows that the ratio of male and female babies born to rural Indian women before and after the 73rd Amendment was passed. This required one-third female representation in local government. The research 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 10 key points of the study are:

  1. The 73rd Amendment to India’s constitution, ratified in 1993, required Indian states to develop rural political bodies at the village, block, and district levels. Further, each level was required to reserve one-third of all political seats for women candidates.  This drastically increased female leadership, and helped save the lives of approximately 900,000–1,800,000 high-birth-order girls born between 1992 and 2004.

  2. It has been noted that female foetuses are either aborted or female infants die young due to neglect or infanticide. The study establishes that in general, the practice does not affect the firstborn. This is reflected in 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.

  3. 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. On examining  factors including infant mortality rates and maternal demographic information it was  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.

  4. Public exposure to women at the top has been shown to reduce social bias and improve living conditions for women. Visibility of powerful female leaders enhances female status within a society, and thus improves the care daughters receive at home.

  5. Female political leadership increases the likelihood that a woman is elected again, that crimes against women are less likely to go unreported.

  6. 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.

  7. Studying the proximity to female leaders revealed that it is the lower-level female leaders, at the village or block level, who play an important role 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.

  8. The district chairpersons are more visible in urban spaces as they are regularly featured in the newspapers. The data also shows that only urban areas saw an increase in the survival of high-birth-order girls born during a female district chairperson’s term.

  9. The finding that the visibility of powerful female leaders can improve distorted sex ratios in societies with male preference is of growing importance.

  10. Policies that emphasize gender parity in one area can have positive, outsize effects in others.