Paying women for domestic work: Recognising hard work or reinforcing gender stereotypes?

Gayatri Vinayak
·6-min read
An Indian woman carries firewood and returns home after a day's work in a paddy field on the outskirts of Gauhati, India, Friday, Feb. 1, 2019. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government on Friday announced cash handouts for small farmers, a pension scheme for informal workers and a doubling of tax relief for the lower middle class in an interim budget designed to shore up its popularity ahead of national elections due before May. Finance Minister Piyush Goyal  said farmers would be paid 6,000 rupees ($85) annually, benefiting as many as 120 million households. (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)
An Indian woman carries firewood and returns home after a day's work in a paddy field on the outskirts of Gauhati, (AP Photo/Anupam Nath)

A particular point in the seven-point manifesto released by Makkal Needhi Maiam (MNM), founded by actor-politician Kamal Haasan, has laid the ground for debate on a much-overlooked topic. It calls for paying housewives a monthly wage in recognition of their work in the house, which often goes unheeded.

The idea has got a push for Congress MP, Shashi Tharoor, who tweeted that such a move will recognise and monetise the services of women homemakers in the society.

The demand for payment for the domestic work put in by women is not a new one. American writer, feminist and social activist, Selma James founded the International Wages for Housework Campaign (IWHC), a women’s network demanding wages for care duties, in 1972.

In a recent ruling where it enhanced the compensation given to the family members of a couple who died in a scooter accident in 2014, the Supreme Court had also indicated that the value of the unpaid domestic work that a woman does at home is equal to that of the paid work that her husband does in the office. It also reiterated the idea of fixing a notional income for homemakers to recognise their hard work and sacrifices.

A widening gap

There is a huge gap in the time spent on doing household work, between men and women. While globally, women perform three times as much work as men, in Asia and the Pacific, women do four times more unpaid work than men.

The country where this gap is the largest is India, where women do as much as 10 times more unpaid work than men. India’s first Time Use Survey data, released by the National Statistics Office (NSO) last year revealed that while women spend close to five hours a day doing unpaid domestic work for household members, men spend only a fraction of that (around an hour and a half a day).

In the rural sectors, the share of women aged 15 and above who take part in domestic duties, which include fetching water and firewood, has increased from 51 percent in 2004-05 to 60 percent in 2011-12, as per the last National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey.

This gap is widening, As per Census 2011, 60.9 per cent of women are engaged in unpaid domestic work, as opposed to 48.8 per cent in 1992-93. Around 160 million women in the country are engaged in household duties that include cooking, cleaning, care responsibilities, fetching water and firewood in rural areas and other household duties.

In addition, in a country where the task of rearing children falls primarily on women, marriage, motherhood and lack of opportunities become some of the primary reasons why, as per data from the International Labour Organisation, more women are leaving the workforce in India

The economic cost of the amount of time spent on unpaid work is huge – the value of unpaid domestic labour by women is nearly 40 per cent of its current GDP in India. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) suggests that if women’s participation in the workforce were to increase to the same level as men’s, the country’s GDP could be boosted by 27 per cent.

While the pandemic saw men initially step in with the household work – raising hopes of the pandemic being the great gender neutraliser, the gains did not continue. With men regaining most of their lost jobs by November 2020, the burden of housework is back on women, who have suffered the most during the pandemic.

Beyond just money

The recently released Malayalam film, The Great Indian Kitchen, directed by Jeo Baby, takes a hard and long look at the obvious and subtle patriarchy in a society that restricts women to the kitchen. In the film the female protagonist, played convincingly by Nimisha Sajayan, is married off, cuts short her hopes of taking up a job in a dance school and resigns initially to a life revolving around the kitchen and making food for the men in the house

What makes this film stand out is that where, in most of the other films, such domesticity is a given, in The Great Indian Kitchen, the director shows the protagonist’s life slowly turning into a grind and a nightmare from which she has no escape. Her realisation of this, and the dark way in which it is projected, makes this film stand out.

This is also one of the major issues concerning the demand for payment towards domestic work. While a move towards recognising that women suffer from disproportionate burden of work at home, it still does not tackle gender inequality in the distribution of work.

Rather, such as move could reinforce gender stereotypes and even deter women from actively looking outside of their homes for work.

Further, the amount of work that women put in at home is so huge that it cannot be quantified. Doing so could bring injustice in the form of disproportional payment. The same standard minimum wages paid to a regular worker would not apply to a woman who has taken up domestic household duties – the time and effort that goes into planning for the day, strategizing her time to ensure the household runs smoothly, the actual physical domestic work and the emotional and mental strain that inevitably accompanies caregiving duties, are worth much beyond that.

Hence, rather than further stereotyping gender roles by paying only women for domestic work, the Government should work towards bringing in a societal change by looking at domestic work as a shared responsibility.

Men should be encouraged to support women who step out of their houses for work. They should be able to avail of leave policies such as family and paternity leave, which will help them stay back and look after children while the woman continues to focus on her career.

Women should also be encouraged to continue working by being provided a support system which includes anganwadis near areas of work, creches and affordable child care centres and assistance centres for the elderly.

More than monetary incentives, what is needed is a change in the mindset and policies that limit women to the home. Unless that happens, the number of women slowly fading away inside the four walls of the home, will keep increasing.