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Faculty of Economics

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Telalagic, S.

Domestic Production as a Source of Marital Power: Theory and Evidence from Malawi


Abstract: This paper argues that wives in developing countries use domestic labour as a tool to incentivise husbands, especially when they lack power and cannot credibly threaten divorce. In Malawi, husbands often supplement farm income with wage labour. In our model, this creates moral hazard: husbands may not make sufficient effort to bring home wages. Wives use different tools to incentivise husbands. They either threaten them with divorce or alter their domestic labour. Our theory predicts that wives who would be hurt badly by divorce resort to using domestic labour as a source of power. Others, having better "outside options", use a combination of the two or only divorce threat. We confirm this prediction using survey data from Malawi. Identification is based on the fact that Malawi’s kinship traditions exogenously determine outside options. Wives in patrilineal cultures (with low outside options) react to good consumption outcomes by significantly increasing domestic labour and reducing leisure, whereas matrilineal wives do not. The effect is particularly strong for patrilineal wives with no natal land inheritance. This suggests that land inheritance is a crucial determinant of the accessibility of divorce to women in Malawi.

Keywords: Intra-household allocation, domestic production, divorce, moral hazard, matriliny, Malawi

JEL Codes: D13 D82 J12 J22


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