On the Historical Roots of Gender Norms: Evidence from Matrilineal Societies in Sub-Saharan Africa

Eva Tène ( INRAE;Toulouse School of Economics Research)

September 7, 2020, 11:00–12:15


Room Auditorium 4

Environment Economics Seminar


This paper studies both the geoclimatic origins and the long-term impacts of matrilineal kinship systems, where inheritance is along the maternal line, in Sub-Saharan Africa. Exploiting cross-ethnic group variations in geoclimatic conditions, I first document that land suitability for root crops and its unsuitability for the husbandry of large domesticated animals both positively predict the incidence of matrilineal kinship systems. I explain these findings by two theories. The first explains matrilineality by the prevalence of extensive hoe agriculture in root crops, where women tend to perform most tasks such as planting and harvesting. The second argues that matrilineality is less likely to emerge in environments favorable to movable property (like large animals) as opposed to immovable property (such as lands). I then examine the long-term impacts of matrilineal institutions and find that matrilineal-origin women are less educated than their patrilineal counterparts, suggesting a substitution between human capital (education) and physical capital (landed property) in parental investment’s choices. In addition, I explore underlying mechanisms and find that matrilineal-origin women are more likely to own a land/house alone in rural areas, bringing evidence of a persistence of matrilineal institutions over time. Those insights have implication on the labor and marriage markets: since matrilineal women already have assets, they are less likely to invest in education and get a “white-collar job”, they do not seek for a rich or educated partner, and contribute the most to household expenditures. The causal interpretation of the results is supported by a geographic regression discontinuity analysis and underlines the importance of cultural norms in the implementation of large-scale development policies.