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All Work And No Pay In A System That Sees Women As Only Wives And Wombs

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By Shambhavi Saxena:

How likely would you be to sign a contract that demanded you be on-call doing physically intensive work 24×7, all seven days of the week for an undefined period of time, that could well span your whole life, with no pay, no health benefits, regular holidays or a complaints cell to speak of? Not very, I imagine. Some might argue that even sweatshops pale in comparison to these conditions. And yet this and more constitutes the unspoken contract binding one half of the gender binary, the world over.

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Photo Credit

Women’s unpaid work, for lack of a better comparison, is like air – crucial to our survival but grossly undervalued and invisible, and not to mention, poisoned constantly by toxic conceptions and conventions. Women’s care work is made out to be an inexhaustible resource meant to be tapped into, across spaces and at all levels of development.

Sexual Division of Labour and the Economy

When biological determinism surfaces in arguments cementing the idea that men and women’s bodies are constructed for different types of work, it’s hard to see the roles of ‘male breadwinner’ or ‘female nurturer’ as anything other than natural. However, a lack of rational probing (particularly at the personal level) of the sexual division of labour has only naturalized a system of inequality. The old rhetoric that ties a woman’s character, chastity and enjoyment of patriarchal protection to her diligence at domestic work only began to be challenged as late as the 70s when the women’s movements in India were gathering momentum. Feminist scholarship made use of Friedrich Engels’ investigation of the primitive hunter-gatherer societies, and even earlier matrifocal societies, which revealed a rather egalitarian division of labour, with both men and women involved in both and equally physically demanding activities of hunting and gathering.

What exactly was it that became the determinists’ clinching argument? Women’s labour, certainly, but more specifically, it was child birth. The trouble was not so much the pregnancy period, or even the long years of care work that had to be invested in child rearing. No, the primitive societies in fact lived by the proverb “it takes a village to raise a child”. The trouble came with the institutions of private property and marriage, that isolated a woman, restricted her mobility and access, and put the entire burden of care work on her, because she was biologically predisposed (that is with a uterus and breasts) to birthing and raising children. Her care work extended beyond children, to her husband to the elderly, to housekeeping, and this is where we find the woman of today, expected to adopt the severely constricting roles of “daughter”, “sister”, “wife”, “mother”, rather than pursuing her potential as an independent individual with rights and dignity (with the exception of a lucky few).

The Limiting Boundaries Of Women’s Work

The sexual division of labour is a terribly old system designed to supply fuel to keep the active and public agents of our national economy going without recognizing or assigning value to their contributions, and even glorifying their ‘sacrifice’. Wives and mothers, sisters and daughters are entrusted with the responsibility of ensuring the good health and work-readiness of the (largely male) agents of the economy by cooking and sometimes growing food, health care, cleaning, collecting fuel and other services absolutely free, as well as forgo their education and work opportunities in order to do their ‘duty’.

It is precisely this system of unequal sexual division of labour that creates women fit only to be wives and wombs (that is not to say it doesn’t create undue pressure on men to be anything but breadwinners) and grieves the birth of daughters who will never be worth as much as sons. Unequal gender relations, as an outcome, is to be expected.

Unpaid care work and circumscribing womanhood in this way was a huge concern during the 68th UN General Assembly (2013), where Under Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and UN Special Rapporteur on Poverty and Human Rights, Magdalena Sepúlveda championed the cause of recognizing, reducing and redistributing unpaid care work as it exists across the globe today.

The Three R’s Of Unpaid Care Work

1. Recognition: The report states that “monetary value [of women’s unpaid work] is estimated at from 10 to over 50 per cent of GDP”, which should really prompt many of us who don’t actually do house work to rethink how we look at house work. Among the people who don’t contribute to house work are policy makers, and it is to them that the report appeals to recognize unpaid care work as actual and economically productive labour. It is hoped that through time-use surveys (adapted to suit the Indian context) the value of care work can be formally established and will no longer “[remain] largely invisible in economic calculations, statistics, policy and political discourse”.

2. Reduction: The report maintains that infrastructure and out-of-home care institutions that take on the burden of care work will significantly reduce stress on house-bound women, allowing them to actually exercise their rights to education, work, freedom of movement etc. It will also allow them to focus on their own health, enjoyment of rights and social and political participation.

3. Redistribution: “[T]he work women do in the home is seen as unskilled and less valuable to society. [Men] receive higher earnings [and] more recognition for their contribution.” The idea that care work is solely the domain of women is one that needs to be upended and discarded forever. Care work should be shared equally and granted the respect and support it deserves.

If women are to be liberated from the exploitative burden of care work, honest infrastructural and institutional support is a necessity. In light of the announcement of the Union Budget 2015-16, to take up the three R’s of women’s unpaid work is the need of the hour. A commitment by the government to the same would be a good way for the state to celebrate International Women’s Day now, wouldn’t it?

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  1. TempleTwins

    Housework is not hard, like Bill Burr put it, any work that you do in your pajamas are not hard work. Prior to industrial revolution house work were a thing, which involves grinding stones to make most of it, now the machine does most of the hard work. Over that most of the house wives these days are sitting in their asses, having a house maid paid by their husbands. If housework is suppose to be paid, we can do that, knowing the market value for cooking and cleaning, deducting the house rent and the cloths you buy for them, jewelry, restaurant bills being split and deducted from that salary and other expenses such as travelling, medical etc then you would see most of the housewives would forever be in debts for their husbands.

    If you want to monetize housework that is, but if you’re simply saying that women must be encouraged to go to work and put money on the table, then I would agree with you. A woman has an intrinsic value in this society based on her biology but men has no such value, they gain value by earning or by exhibiting their utility. Women are awarded a lot of money, assets during divorces which shows, their work had been overtly recognized and payed in hefty which if they took the profession of cooking and cleaning or prostitution would’ve never gain such assets. A man in our society is a willing slave, a walking dildo and a paying ATM.

  2. Subhalakshmi

    Thanks for a great article Shambhavi! Really enjoyed reading it. In the context of unpaid work, many of us – practitioners, activists and feminist economists – continue to insist that unpaid work for men and women lies along a continuum of underpaid and unpaid, public and private, formal and informal forms of work. Hence, while care is an important dimension of this, we feel subsistence and livelihoods support, and social protection – or the lack of it – are equally important aspects – especially in a globalised world operating within a particular macroeconomic logic. It is often argued that in order for this neo-liberal paradigm to continue and to be strengthened, women’s unpaid work, including care, is absolutely essential – it is not increasing by accident, it is almost ‘by design’. I suppose all I am saying is that the analysis and the discourse goes beyond the sexual division of labour and care alone. Feminist economists in India have been writing about this since the 1970s. At UN Women (where I work) we have been supporting the strengthening of time use methodologies and advocacy around it to highlight these issues. Happy to keep the conversations going. Some of us stay connected on these issues related to Unpaid Work through a list-serve that I am currently moderating. Would you like to join the group?

    1. Subhalakshmi

      Oh, and one more thing, that is why when we speak of ‘redistribution’, it is not only in the context of redistribution between the sexes, it is also advocating for redistribution between family, community and most importantly, the State!

    2. Shambhavi Saxena

      Thanks for the comment! Feminist economics is still one largely interesting area that I’m trying to understand as I go, and I would absolutely love to learn more, so the group you moderate sounds absolutely wonderful! Will definitely like to stay connected 🙂


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