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The ‘Unpaid’ Work Women Do At Home Needs To Be Acknowledged For This Reason

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By Anu Pandey and Nissim Mannathukkaren:

The Aamir Khan film Dangal, now the highest grossing Indian film ever, is already much celebrated. In a state such as Haryana, where the most egregious forms of patriarchy operate, it is indeed exhilarating to see women, in Dangal, beat men in wrestling; a combat sport considered a male bastion. And in a nation such as India, where women’s bodies are subject to perpetual surveillance and shaming, it is definitely liberating for women to vicariously participate in the sporting triumph of Dangal.

Yet, the film throws up many interesting questions around women’s empowerment, which obviously, cannot be resolved in the context of the film, or a single film. Besides, it is illogical to expect a commercial film backed by Walt Disney Studios, the world’s largest film studio, to deal with the complexities of women’s liberation.

A critical scene in the film is Mahavir Phogat instructing his wife that the daughters will not do ‘chulha-chowka’ (household work) anymore, but will henceforth devote time to wrestling.

However, the pertinent question is that in the real world, outside the film, who is going to do the work that the girls are liberated from?

Can we consider household work — cooking, cleaning, fetching water over long distances, caring for children, the sick and the elderly — or what is called as unpaid care work performed by women/girls as an optional service? And, which could be forsaken at will, without having an alternative in place?

Can we have women’s liberation without questioning the fundamental division of labour that drives patriarchy — women primarily burdened with unpaid care work, and confined to the home and the hearth, the private sphere?

Can we break the public/private binary by women competing in a man’s world as a man, by following the rules set by men, in a world made for men? And can we break the man-woman binary not by making it irrelevant, but by simply bringing a few women on board to the male side of the division of labour?

The threat is that in the guise of breaking the public/private binary, the resistance against a male-dominated world is co-opted, by women being offered a slice of the pie. In this process, what is problematic is not women losing ‘feminine’ traits of long hair, or the female body participating in a ‘masculine’ sport (for these are constructed binaries), but the erasure of female labour, and contribution to sustaining human life.

Not Accounted For

This labour is looked down upon in the world and is not part of national accounting or Gross Domestic Product. But ironically, it is what sustains the economy. In material terms, women’s unpaid care work is huge. It is estimated that women perform 75% of the world’s unpaid care work. In India, women perform 10 to 12 times the unpaid care work of men. Even in the West, women’s share is much higher. A paper by Ferrant, Pesando and Nowacka put the unpaid care work at 63% of the Indian GDP, and 40% of the Swedish one.

It is because women cannot give up unpaid care work that their access to paid work is severely limited, which in turn leads to a vicious cycle. Even when they find paid work, it is mostly low-paid, precarious or temporary work. Paid work also does not liberate women for often they are now saddled with both paid and unpaid work, leading to what is called as “double burden”. But it is well-established that women’s employment outside the home is absolutely crucial to women’s well-being.

Women’s labour keeps the planet alive, for women perform not just unpaid care work, but also subsistence production of goods. And largely unknown to the world, women perform agriculture work. In the developing world, women constitute nearly half of the agricultural labour force and 60% in Asia and Africa. Despite this, women own less than 20% of the agricultural land of the world. Women and girls also constitute 60% of the world’s chronically hungry.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that if women farmers had the same resources as men, it would have led to 150 million fewer hungry people. Thus, the elimination of hunger and malnutrition are crucially dependent on women. As scholars such as Amartya Sen have shown, the empowerment of women is the key to improving human development for the whole society.

Women need to access all arenas, including sport. Participating in sport, especially in gender iniquitous societies, can be liberating for women. Further, it overturns established gender norms, particularly when women enter hitherto male-dominated sports. But it is also not a straightforward story of women’s liberation.

As sports researchers in western cultures tell us, women are faced with the female/athlete paradox: even when they become athletes, they are forced to conform to dominant notions of femininity. This leads to gender binaries in sports and the severe shaming of women participating in “gender-inappropriate” sports.

This is because the larger society is still suffused with patriarchal values, and sport, while liberating for women, still operates within this larger culture. The commodification of global sport through corporate control and its attendant features such as the sexualisation of women’s sporting bodies further compounds the issue. Thus, even when a minuscule number of women athletes such as Serena Williams breaks the mould of femininity, it is still made possible by the logic of capital. Crucially, the entry of black women into sports, and their glorification through the market has not necessarily changed the general condition of African-American women in America.

For An Anchor

That is why women’s liberation has to be based on concrete material foundations. It is women’s unpaid care work, which makes work and sport outside the home possible. Even when some women break out of the private sphere and enter the public sphere, the unpaid care work falls upon lowly-paid women domestic help from the most marginalised backgrounds and poor immigrant women in developed countries. Large numbers of women, especially in the Third World — as mothers, wives, sisters and daughters — are unsung heroes, but who are systematically marginalised unless they bring home a medal or moolah, to prove they are of equal worth as men.

Women’s empowerment is not merely about women becoming wrestlers or fighter pilots, which are, of course, important symbolic gestures. But for real equality, it is imperative that women’s care work be given its due material recognition. It would also mean a thorough reordering of gender norms, not by a few women entering the men’s turf, but by men entering women’s turf, and taking on ‘feminine’ unpaid care work, which is what will allow women to secure paid employment.

Ironically, despite economic and educational growth, female participation in the labour force of India has fallen to 24% in 2011, from 31% in 2004. India is 11th from the bottom in the world in women’s labour-force participation rates.

For the real equality for women, along with the Mahavir Phogats, we need the likes of Arunachalam Muruganantham, the man who revolutionised women’s health by inventing cheap sanitary napkins.

This post was first published here on The Hindu.

About the authors: Anu Pandey and Nissim Mannathukkaren teach at Saint Mary’s and Dalhousie universities in Canada respectively. E-mails:;

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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.

Read more about her campaign. 

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)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

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.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

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
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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