Understanding Family Structure and Women’s Empowerment

Understanding Family Structure and Women’s Empowerment

Household structure impacts female autonomy in developing countries.

Based on the research of Sisir Debnath

In a study aimed toward a greater understanding of women’s empowerment, Sisir Debnath, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, sheds light on how family structure, a relatively less studied factor of women empowerment, impacts female autonomy in developing countries. Debnath’s study compares women living in nuclear households (due to the death of the patriarch) with those living in joint families. The study revealed that household structure impacts female autonomy, whereby women in nuclear households enjoy greater decision-making power, freedom of movement outside the home and participation in jobs, when compared to their counterparts living in joint families. The study also revealed that women’s autonomy in joint family structures was influenced by differences in economic status, caste and household location.

 What grants women greater independence and greater decision-making power?

Women’s empowerment is widely acknowledged as an important factor in social and economic development. It not only leads to better socio-economic outcomes for children, but is also desirable for its own sake. Sisir Debnath, Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Indian School of Business, points out that a common response to the question of what factors drive female autonomy is “women’s workforce participation”. Debnath explains that there is a substantial body of research demonstrating a close relationship between women’s autonomy and their income and financial position. Accordingly, public policies for women’s empowerment in India are largely aimed at strengthening women’s financial status. These policies include greater employment opportunities for women, greater asset ownership, gender neutral inheritance rights, and differential income tax structures favouring women. In addition to adopting such overt measures, the government has also been using subtler means to empower women in other ways through legislation. For example, property registration tax in some states of India is lower for female buyers. Reservation for women in gram panchyat (village council) elections is also aimed toward encouraging greater female participation in local government. Such efforts are not restricted to public institutions alone. For instance, private financial institutions offer lower mortgage rates on housing loans for female clients and have institution-specific policies geared toward female empowerment.

‘The chicken and the egg’:  The relationship between women’s income and autonomy

Debnath explains that the direction of the association between women’s financial independence and their autonomy is ambiguous.  It is difficult to establish whether greater income for women improves their autonomy, or whether greater autonomy enables them to seek employment outside the home.  If greater income indeed makes women autonomous, then, in the first place, women have to be autonomous to avail of opportunities to earn greater incomes. So it’s a classic chicken and egg situation, with the answer remaining elusive.

India and family structure

Shifting the focus from the nebulous relationship between income and women empowerment, Debnath draws attention to another important but relatively unexplored factor that affects women’s autonomy. “Until now, a relatively less studied factor that is uniquely pertinent to India and other South Asian countries is the ‘family structure’ in which a woman resides,” Debnath explains. “The role of family structure in determining women’s autonomy hasn’t been examined in the West as the existence of joint families there is rare”. India, and the rest of the subcontinent, is unique as it accommodates both nuclear and joint families. A joint family, in which several generations live together, is common in India. Until recently, joint households were the norm; however, migration and urbanisation are rapidly changing family structures. The dissolution of joint families has made nuclear families increasingly common, changing women’s relative position in a family and with respect to social security and care for the elderly.

Do joint and nuclear families affect women’s autonomy in rural India?

To answer the question of how family structure impacts rural women’s autonomy, Debnath compares females living in joint families with those who reside in nuclear households. The death of the oldest male member, the patriarch, of a joint family in rural India often led to its disintegration into nuclear families, especially in the case of households with arable land in rural areas. Debnath uses data from the Human Development Profile of India (HDPI, 1993-1994) to identify joint households in rural India and to observe changes in household structure patterns in 2004-2005. He finds that in joint families where the patriarch had died during the 11-year period, women were more likely to reside in nuclear households. A comparison of women in nuclear households (following the death of the patriarch) with those still living in joint families revealed that the former enjoy greater decision-making power, greater freedom of movement outside the house premises and greater participation in jobs. Women in joint households not only had less decision-making power but they also needed the permission of other family members more often to execute even routine household activities.

Here’s what the numbers tell us:


In addition to demonstrating that women in nuclear families have greater economic and social autonomy, Debnath also finds that women’s autonomy in joint families is differentiated by economic status, caste and household location.  Women in richer joint households have more autonomy in intra-household decision-making but less freedom of movement outside the home. For women in poorer joint households, it is just the opposite: they have greater freedom of movement outside the home but less autonomy in intra-household decision-making. Another interesting finding is that the geographic location of the household affects women’s autonomy: women in joint households in northern India have less autonomy compared to their counterparts in southern India. Interestingly, in the south, the effects of family structure on women’s autonomy are weaker.

The way forward: One size doesn’t fit all

The findings of this study could be useful in shaping public policies directed towards women’s empowerment. Policies aimed at improving women’s employment, ownership of financial assets, healthcare seeking behaviours, participation in local politics and so forth, may be more successful if they emphasise benefits accruing to women in joint households. Debnath says that the mere creation of reservations for women will not help much, because the women who are already independent will benefit the most from the reservations.

Additionally, it has been seen that for lower caste women, and women in north Indian states, women’s freedom to seek health benefits and to visit health centres for themselves and their children, is highly curtailed. This finding can be used to guide the formulation of health policies for lower caste and north Indian women to heighten their health seeking behaviours in order to prevent illness, improve health and nutrition, and reduce maternal and infant mortality.

Debnath points out that the joint family is not always oppressive and unfriendly to women. The presence of in-laws in joint families can often increase women’s job participation because they may be able to provide child care, which makes it possible for women to work outside the home. Thus, the trade-offs of living in joint families-their benefits or detriments-with regard to women’s greater job participation and their economic and social freedom determinants, should be further examined in more detail.

Most of the current policies focus on increasing women’s autonomy relative to men, specifically their husbands. This study indicates that in joint family structures, there are more agents at play. Also, within joint family structures, not all women in the family have the same level of autonomy. The autonomy enjoyed by daughters-in-law and mothers-in-law may be very different, and further, the level of autonomy a daughter-in-law has in the home may depend on whether she has a repressive or supportive mother-in-law. These issues need to be examined, and the insights gained can be used to guide policies for younger women and older women living in joint households. Further research on the working of family structures and its influence on the freedom of women is certainly recommended for meaningful policy and social change, for surely, one size doesn’t fit all.

About the Researcher:

Sisir Debnath is Assistant Professor of Economics and Public Policy at the Indian School of Business.

About the Research:

Sisir Debnath (2015) The Impact of Household Structure on Female Autonomy in Developing Countries. The Journal of Development Studies, 51(5), pp. 485-502.

About the Writer: 

Catherine Xavier is a writer with the Centre for Learning and Management Practice at the Indian School of Business.

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