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

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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.

You must be to comment.
  1. Truth

    Why do feminists always feel the need to compare themselves with men? Why are men asked about their savings, job, bank account, house, car, etc. at the time of marriage? Why do matrimonials feature ads seeking well-settled men? How many women are grateful for the fact that their husbands have turned themselves into walking ATMs for their wives? How many women would be willing to spend a whole lifetime earning for a man? Women and their parents ar ungrateful golddiggers.

  2. Truth

    My good-for-nothing female cousins who barely passed high school got married to millionaires and are living a lavish life. There are countless such cases out there. Please ask them to go and work in the professional environment. My lazy ex-wife would sit in front of the TV all day, expect me to do everything, would not even cook, abuse, threatened me with a false case of dowry until I was forced to divorce her.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
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