Is Making Child Care More Accessible To Women The Right Way To Balance Gender Roles?

Posted on March 17, 2016 in Society

By Karuna Maharaj:

Shivarti, the second wife of Namdeo, holds her grandson while carrying metal pitchers filled with water from a well outside Denganmal village, Maharashtra, India, April 21, 2015. In Denganmal, a village in Maharashtra state, some men take a second or third wife just to make sure their households have enough drinking water. Becoming what are known as "water wives" allows the women, often widows or single mothers, to regain respect in conservative rural India by carrying water from the well quite some distance from the remote village. When the water wife, who does not usually share the marital bed, becomes too old to continue, the husband sometimes takes a third and younger spouse to fetch the water in metal pitchers or makeshift containers. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY PICTURE 22 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "WATER WIVES OF MAHARASHTRA"??SEARCH "WATER WIVES" FOR ALL IMAGES TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY - RTX1F2PH
Image credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui.

Every society has its own problems. Let’s look at the negatives in ours. We are surrounded by hunger, poverty, injustice, sexism and casteism. Imagine a system where we could undo all this, provided we are blind to our future possibilities and circumstances. We will refer to it as the ‘Original Position’, an idea propounded by John Rawls. Persons in the original position do not know about their future society, its stage of development or associated politics, but it is assumed that they know general facts about human society, politics, psychology and economics. It is like we are starting anew, with our eyes closed. It’s an attempt at the establishment of a utopian society.

The persons who come together in the original position are ‘representatives’ in the form of heads of family, derived from our society now. People here will now formulate concepts, laws and the structure of a society wherein even the ‘worst off’ now have a better chance at equality. Therefore, the ‘original position’ might be a powerful concept for challenging gender structure. But, in the original position, the parties, although not aware of their individual characteristics, understand society and while formulating principles of justice may mould them in a way that even in the event of a gendered society these principles prove useful.

Now, we must analyse a way in which women’s labour at home can be respected and treated at parity with that of men outside of the household. Also, what must be the role of the state in ensuring equal respect for women’s labour? This article tries to analyse whether state funding of childcare is a way of achieving this or would it further strengthen sexism and concretise sex roles.

We live in the biggest democracy of the world. But are our families democratic? Family is the one of the basic structures of society but we refrain from strictly applying the rules of the political conception of justice on families either through law or other tools of state coercion. In a gendered society, women are the nurturers, home keepers and are responsible for rearing children. However, because this important job is not institutionalised, and there is no objective way of deciding excellence or grading in motherhood or household chores, the market value of this labour is zero. Moreover, in a gendered society, this sort of labour is not voluntary and hence, the state would be under an obligation to take steps either to equalise their share or to compensate them for it.

But political philosophy does not operate within the realm of human relationships. Should then, as a norm or guideline, the law acknowledge a wife’s work in raising children by entitling her to an equal share in the husband’s income? If yes, then in case of divorce, women should have the right to an equal share in the increased value of the family’s assets. This is an indirect way of enforcing a conception of ‘justice’ in the sphere of private family life and hence, the distinction between the political and the non-political, the first being the prime subject of justice, must fall through. The inequalities between the labour rendered by men and women affects the rights and self-respect of children adversely and withholds them from achieving their full potential in society. Therefore, the children here being the ‘worst off’, their status and position in society as future citizens is compromised.

If the representatives of the original position are derived from our society at present, which is gendered, most of these heads would be men. And again, men will decide the political conception of justice for women. We might think that because other major institutions of our society are heavily regulated, therefore, families are also forced to adhere to principles of ‘justice’ indirectly.

However, if we suppose that it is by voluntary choice that women take up the task of child care and household duties and nothing prevents them from working outside the family, in short if the job of taking care of children is not gendered, then the state would not be under a duty to fund or subsidise childcare. Therefore, in the original position, for this to happen the principles of political justice must be such that it produces such social conditions in which a gendered division of labour is voluntary. But the entire onus of correcting gendered injustice cannot be put on principles of political justice alone. The remedy depends on many factors including social theory and human psychology and cannot be settled by a conception of justice alone.

Justice Within Families

Political liberalism is plagued by the problem of the public/domestic dichotomy, only the former being the subject of justice. Different family structures and associated distribution of rights and duties within families affects people’s life prospects, more importantly, those of women. Due to injustice within families in gendered societies, men get to participate in political and economic spheres of life and women get excluded considerably. Their labour at home is not acknowledged and they continue being economically dependent on men for their necessities.

In such a scenario, if the state starts funding childcare, compensating women by giving them an equal share in their husbands’ income will not be just because the value of their labour is still attached to the income of a man and their economic dependence on men will not cease. Therefore, this will result in unequal pay for equal work as the wife of a carpenter would get less money for raising their children and looking after the home than say the wife of a wealthy doctor. More than formal legal equality of the sexes is required if justice is to be done.

In a gendered society, a large part of women’s work is unpaid and for most of her needs she is dependent on men. This economic dependence is likely to affect power relations within families as well as access to leisure, prestige and political power among other things. Therefore, any discussion of justice within the family would have to address these issues. For a fully just moral and political theory women need to participate with men in equal numbers and in positions of equal power or influence. And the parties in the original position need to be a product of genderless institutions and customs.

A consequence of just principles is self-respect in human beings and, therefore, the contracting parties in the original position would ensure that social conditions which undermine development of self-respect or esteem are eradicated. Just family structures and practices should be those in which parenting itself is esteemed as the basis for developing self-respect. And therefore, high quality, subsidised child care facilities which augment just family structures and parenting would be a fundamental requirement of a just society. Therefore, a conception of justice must also inform social institutions like the family and the separation of the public/domestic realms of life from the standpoint of justice should be abandoned.

Subsidised child care, after school care for children and other methods of freeing women from their gendered roles would ensure that both men and women equally participate in all walks of life such as at work or any other economic, social or political field. However, if women choose of their own volition to be homemakers and raise children then just principles of society would enjoin upon the state a duty to protect them from plausible vulnerabilities.

Non-Distributive Aspects Of Justice

There is another aspect of justice which is beyond distributive issues. These are non-distributive issues of justice such as decision-making, division of labour and culture. The fact that women have been typecast in their role as primary nurturers, homemakers and a source of emotional dependence for both sexes, is a consequence of unjust social institutions. This gendered role of women is one way in which social institutions inhibit liberty. In a gendered society, if women are compensated by the state for their domestic labour by funding childcare alone, which itself is distributive in nature, and not rectifying the position of women in society as equals in other social, political and economic fields, then domination and oppression of women will never end.

Distributive justice must conform to a just framework of distribution and, therefore, must look at the institutional conditions that promote them. In a gendered society, the market value of domestic labour is extremely low. It is imposed on women, therefore, their value decreases. They are perceived as unprofessional which renders them powerless, oppressed and marginalised. Their development is narrow and constricted. They are not seen as fit to work in the professional world and because of widespread acceptance of their gendered role, their capacity for self-determination is restricted. No such constraints are however put on men. Men can achieve success outside the domestic set up because women take care of everything else.

This transfer of power is unaccounted for and not remunerated in any way, be it social recognition or in monetary terms. This results in low self-esteem, material deprivation and loss of control. In a gendered society, if childcare is funded by the state through direct or indirect ways, it will entrench women’s roles as primary nurturers and homemakers. Earlier, it was just customary unequal assignment to women but if the state mandates it, sex roles for adults and socialisation of children into sex roles will become formal which will result in a perpetuation of inequality of the sexes. Funding childcare will not reverse the social perception of women’s roles and capabilities limited to homes. Because men have, in principle, removed themselves from the responsibilities of looking after children, women become dependent on the state and seek privileges, assistance etc. because they singlehandedly look after children.

The exploitation, marginalisation and powerlessness of women all are a product of unequal social division of labour which a conception of justice must rectify. Therefore, justice requires a reorganisation of institutions and practices of decision-making, division of labour and bringing about institutional, structural and cultural change. For example, by breaking down gender roles, by throwing open jobs and positions which have historically been dominated by either one sex or the other like hiring women as taxi drivers, as corporate or governmental heads, in the armed forces etc. to end the marginalisation of women.