[Editorial Analysis] Home, alone

Mains Paper 1: Society
Prelims level: Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy
Mains level: Role of women and associated issues

Context:

• Domestic violence cases had spiked during the COVID-19 lockdown and it was echoed as “shadow pandemic”. There was an alarming increase in its frequency during the pandemic.

• The domestic work performed by wives and daughters is both priceless, and of little value. Could a salary for housework paid by the state be a way to value this work? how can women determine a fair price, when the labour that sustains homes is so consistently devalued?

Pandemic times:

• During COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, the middle-class lockdown home became a simultaneous space for salaried work and unpaid housework and made it impossible to ignore the toil that sustained a house.

• In the absence of domestic help, schools and childcare, women were stretched thin — but men, too, did more at home.

• Gender gap in domestic work shrunk during the lockdown, but widened again by August 2020, when many men returned to employment.

• Economic shock of the pandemic is bound to push more women out of the workforce — and into unpaid domestic service.

• According to Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy (CMIE) data, while men recovered most of their lost jobs by November 2020, women didn’t — 49 per cent of job losses were of women.

Issues:

• A large number of women live with domestic violence and cruelty because they are economically dependent on others, mainly their husbands.

• The NSSO time-use survey 2019 of nearly 4.5 lakh Indians reveals that women spend nearly five hours every day on unpaid domestic work, compared to 98 minutes by men. Less than 6 per cent of Indian men are involved in cooking, compared to 75 per cent women.

• Housework demands effort and sacrifice, 365 days a year, 24/7. Despite this, a huge proportion of Indian women are not treated equal to men.
• Arduous labour of women in the kitchen and home (and their lack of choice in opting out of it) is an essential — and ignored — ingredient of Indian lives.

• Household work done by women enables men (and privileged women) to take up productive paid jobs in the economy.

• Even for those women who take up work outside the home, domestic responsibilities shape their choice of work and professional progress.

• The drag on Indian women’s labour force participation (one of the lowest in the world) is not only a function of low education and social status, but also, to a significant extent, of culture — the basket of values that, by tying women’s identity tightly to the supervision of children and home, nudges them out of the workforce.

• No matter the strides in education and social practices, in the political and cultural discourse about women, marriage and home are still seen, unquestioningly, as the rightful and natural context for women’s lives.

• Work-from-home (WFH) as a fix to the problem of too few women in the workforce because a) they do not have to leave home and face molestation and b) because it can make it feasible for them to do “both office and family chores”.

Payment of wages:

• Women labour at home that subsidises the economic activities of society, the proposal of paying wages to them leaves the fundamental hierarchy of the patriarchal home unchallenged — that a woman’s place is in the home — and absolves it of change.

• Generally, a salary also presupposes a worker’s ability to bargain for higher wages, and exit her workplace but hardly these negotiations take place in the home, which places men’s needs and pleasures at the centre of its workflow.

• Benefits: The wage pay to women would make them autonomous of the men. Repudiation of housework. Recognition of household work is one of the most central processes in empowerment. It gives them a claim to equality within the patriarchal Indian household that only recognises the work done by men.

Hierarchy in gender and caste:

• A false hierarchy of gender and caste practices has, indeed, devalued the essential work that sustains us — whether cleaning or cooking or the care of infants and elderly.

• It allows caste-privileged women and nearly all men to pass on this work to those from “lower castes” and the impoverished — for low wages.

• This fundamental inequality robs women of self-worth, but also stunts men into pre-fabricated social roles.

• It radiates out of the home into the public sphere. It shapes workplaces that reward 24×7 male workers who can afford to ignore the demands of the home; eases out women who shoulder precisely that burden or confines them in supportive, secondary roles.

• It leads to abysmal wages paid to domestic workers. Care work performed by women, largely from the lower castes, remains devalued even in the middle of a pandemic, as is evident in the struggle of ASHA workers. Even professions such as teaching, that tend to employ more women, remain low-paying.

Way ahead:

• Dismantling gender and caste hierarchies – and expanding the imagination of women as citizens independent of the home — might make the family a nourishing place, not only for men.

• Starting from the right to reside in the marital home, to streedhan and haq meher, to coparcenary and inheritance rights as daughters and to basic services, free legal aid and maintenance in instances of violence and divorce, there is a need to strengthen awareness, implementation and utilisation of other existing provisions.

• Aim cannot be only to ensure “basic income” to women. Women should be encouraged and helped to reach their full potential through quality education, access and opportunities of work, gender-sensitive and harassment-free workplaces and attitudinal and behaviour change within families to make household chores more participative.

• It is thus important to recognise the value of unpaid domestic work. However, creating value isn’t always about fair remuneration. Asking men to pay for wives’ domestic work could further enhance their sense of entitlement.

Conclusion:

• The quantification of women’s paid and unpaid work by the government may be a welcome step, it is, however, the first step towards a long road of bringing justice to the millions of hardworking women of India.

• As the next step, government of India should include women’s unpaid work within formal definitions of productive labour.

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