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'Can The Govt Get My Husband To Make Tea?' Indian Housewives are Tired And Yet Their Work is 'Nothing'

A woman draws water from a handpump in a village. (File photo/Reuters)

A woman draws water from a handpump in a village. (File photo/Reuters)

In India, the unpaid work done by women looking after their homes and children is worth 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP. But, who cares?

When 26-year-old Seema is asked what she does, her response is always just one word: 'Nothing'.

The resident of Ashok Nagar area in Delhi wakes up at 5 am every morning, she has never needed an alarm. Her day begins with a 2-kilometre walk that she needs to take to collect water for the five members in her family. She then spends the next few hours scrubbing the utensils stained with the food from the previous night and then goes back home to get her children ready for school. Meanwhile, she also prepares two meals so her husband can eat some and take some to work. At 10 am, after her husband leaves, she is left with her three-month-old toddler. She gives her a bath and feeds her. In the afternoon, she goes back to the community water pump area, carrying her toddler. She washes the entire family's clothes. By the time she goes back home, her children come back from school. She serves them a hot meal. At around 8 pm, her husband comes back and asks her to make tea. She does. The next few hours she spends cooped up in the kitchen to makes rotis for the family before she can go to bed at midnight. When her toddler wakes up in the middle of the night and cries, her husband turns over. Seema pats her child back to sleep.

"It's exhausting. But how can anyone call this work?" Seema asked before she burst into giggles along with her companion who lives in the same neighborhood. The women in the area have gathered on the terrace to soak their wet clothes. This is the only time that they get to talk to each other, share a few secrets and crib about the apathetic husbands. "My husband has never entered the kitchen to make a cup of tea for himself," said Suman.

Why is it Not Considered Work?

A recent report published by Oxfam notes that unpaid work done by women across the globe amounts to a staggering USD 10 trillion a year. That is equivalent to 43 times the annual turnover of the world’s biggest company Apple. And yet, most women, men and the governments across the world believe that the work done by homemakers are 'nothing'.

In India alone, the report notes, that the unpaid work done by women looking after their homes and children is worth 3.1 percent of the country’s GDP. While women, on an average, spend 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes per day in rural areas on such unpaid care work, in comparison, men spend only 29 minutes in urban and 32 minutes in rural areas.

Vineet John Samuel, a public policy researcher, believes that historically jobs were created with a sexist point of view. "A man is considered to be the breadwinner, and there is someone at home to taking care of his food and everything else just so he can go to work," he said. According to him, that traditional idea of gender-based job roles has created a structure where it's the woman who does most of the household chores, and it's not considered to be work. "There are several government agencies that can look at this problem, and develop a structure that can create a monetary contribution equivalent for the unpaid work done at home," he said.

Why Do Women Do More Housework than Men?

Swarna Rajagopalan, political scientist and the founder and director for the Prajnya Trust – a nonprofit organization based in Chennai says, "The idea is that if you are born with XX chromosome, you are already good at household work."

Rajagopalan is right. While 41-year-old Uma's five sons spend their days loitering around in the streets apparently looking to find part-time jobs, her only 17-year-old daughter takes care of all the housework-- from washing clothes to cooking dinner to even massaging her brothers' legs when they are back home in the evening. "I can barely work now. My legs hurt, so my daughter does all the work," said Uma. A research report found that most women of all classes believe that it is important for mothers to train their daughters in domestic skills. "This also implies that the mother plays a vital role in actualizing female gender roles. This ensures the perpetuation of these roles," noted the report.

Sneha, Uma's daughter, is stunned when she is asked if her brothers help her. "Why will they work at home? They have to go earn money," said Sneha. Uma intervened and said that her husband sometimes chops vegetables. "He has helped me a couple of times," Uma said, talking about her husband of 24 years.

"When women make tea it's considered to be normal like it's her job, but when a man makes tea it's considered to be something out of the ordinary," said Rajagopalan. "Women are routinely doing household chores but that's not thought to be valuable," she added.

An earlier research report that compared time spent in domestic work by women in some Western countries and India showed that while women spent, on an average, 10 hours and 18 minutes every day, men, on an average, spent less than 2 hours every day. The conditions are better in some parts of the world, but equality is still a dream. In Canda, women spent 4 hours 55 minutes on an average, their male counterparts half the time on household chores. In both US and UK, women spent a little more than 4 hours every day on housework, men spent about 2 hours.


Why Do Women Give Up Their Dreams?

Manorama, 34, had rented a one-roomed house in her neighbourhood and had started a beauty parlour about five years back. "It was my dream," she said. A couple of months after Manorama realised that she was financially independent and could make a lot of decisions on her own, her daughter fell sick. "She got typhoid because my husband wouldn't clean anything, and fed her some rubbish," Manorama complained. She gave up on her dreams. Manorama closed the shutters of her parlour because she had to go back to the role of caregiver, the one job that is so undermined in our society and the economy.

A report published on Thursday by the International Labour Organization (ILO) noted that the most dynamic economies in the Asia-Pacific region, India and China, have seen women’s employment rates fall more markedly than men’s. This, despite women being better educated, having fewer children and being more likely to live in urban areas than 30 years ago.

The reasons are many but one of the largest one is because women play the role of a care giver. "In the last 20 years, the amount of time women spent on unpaid care and domestic work has hardly fallen, and men’s has increased by just eight minutes a day. At this pace of change, it will take more than 200 years to achieve equality in time spent in unpaid care work," said Manuela Tomei, director, ILO Conditions of Work and Equality Department.

According to the ILO report, nearly 22% of women of working age worldwide — or 647-million — perform unpaid care work on a full-time basis. By comparison, only 41-million men — 1.5% of them — carry out such work on a full-time basis, the report found.

Manorama now works at SEWA (Self Employed Women's Association), an organisation that promotes the rights of low-income, independently-employed female workers. "I teach stitching here," she said. The conversation is intervened with her husband's phone call. She picked up the phone and said sternly, "I am at work now. Please call me later."

Padmini Swaminathan, Chairperson of the Centre for Livelihoods at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Hyderabad is of the opinion that only establishments can help in redistribution of this unpaid work. "Unless organisation realise that men need to be at home too to take care of housework, children and the elderly, nothing is going to change," she said. The feminist economist said that most workplaces don't want to offer work-from-home to a man, and may even ridicule the situation if he says he needs to take leave so he can attend a parent-teacher meeting at his child's school. "That patriarchal structure at the organisation level has to change," she said.

How Can the State Intervene?

Ritu Dewan, President of the Indian Association for Women’s Studies, and Director, Centre for Development Research and Action, Mumbai, said that state intervention is a necessity to solve the unequal distribution of unpaid work between men and women. "First is the mindset, a change within your own household," she said. However, Dewan feels that unless the government takes responsibility and changes policies to ensure women are not violated, the unpaid care work problem won't be solved.

Back in 2012, a bill by the women and child development ministry proposed that it will be mandatory for men to share their income with their wives if she does not work outside the home. It didn't translate into law and ask the housewives, they are more than relieved. "My husband makes Rs 10,000 a month. Now if he has to give me a salary, what will we eat?" Meera, 28, asked.

Dewan said that making a law like that would simply ensure that that the hours of work that women put into a home is justified. "The idea is to recognise their work first, include it in the GDP. And then take the step to redistribute," she said. The economist said that giving women some form of payment for it is 'demeaning'. "Men will do just anything to justify it's a woman's job to take care of home," she said.

The economist also pointed out that public policies and costs largely affect women, and especially if they are housewives. "When a woman is sick she refuses to go to the hospital because she feels that money can be used elsewhere. She stays at home instead," she said.

Dewan also said out there's a huge opportunity cost that is completely ignored while taking into account the economy of a nation. "When a woman goes to bring water and then puts in the time to purify that unclean water, she is spending her time doing something that the state should be doing. When she is taking care of a child, who is a future worker, because there's no affordable creche she is doing what the government should be doing," Dewan said. "Reducing the work burden on women should be the government's first objective. The lack of response means violence on women," the economist said.

Suman, 27, has just voted once back in her village in Nadia, West Bengal. "After I moved to Delhi with my husband, I have never voted. Who do I vote for? Do the politicians care about us?" she asked. Asha, her neighbour, intervenes. "I would vote for the government that gets my husband to make his own tea," she said, as the women around her break into a peal of laughter. Amid the laughter, they all seem to agree.