In the second year of my college, I applied to be a part of the Women Development Cell with other potential candidates. In the selection process, all applicants were asked to discuss if household work done by housewives* should be given any economic value? I clearly remember that there was a part of the group that argued about how monetary value can be assigned to the work done by housewives as what they do is their way of expressing love and care towards the family. I doubt if I did justice in explaining the importance of assigning economic value to housework back then, and it has bothered me ever since.
At that time, little did I know that a year before, out of 200 married female respondents, many expressed the same sentiment in a research report prepared by the Evangelical Social Action Forum (ESAF) and HealthBridge. They considered the satisfaction of rearing a child and looking after the well-being of the family as the greatest reward. Writing this is a chance for me to touch upon the criticality of recognising domestic work for its social and economical value in an individual and Country’s progress. Many of us have felt its importance in recent lockdown due to covid-19.
One need not look far from home to realise the lack of appreciation given to the role of a housewife. During school years, there were times when I felt embarrassed to introduce my mother as ‘just’ a housewife. A simple google search defines a ‘housewife’ as a married woman, whose main occupation is caring for her family, managing household affairs and doing housework. On the other hand, a ‘homemaker’ is defined as a person, especially a woman, who manages a home. In present times, the word ‘housewife’ has been replaced with the new term ‘homemaker’, which raises the question: will replacing a word help change perceptions? Maybe or maybe not, but it’s a start.
A housewife’s typical day starts at about 5 am and ends at around 10 pm During this time, she is responsible to prepare breakfast, clean the house, take care of the elderly and children, finish laundry, replenish kitchen supplies, keep the house in order, prepare lunch and dinner, and do other task related to house affairs. These tasks contain various sub-tasks too. On an average, a housewife spends 6-8 hours minimum doing all these. In case they are engaged in paid work outside the house, then add a few more working hours. This is also described as a ‘women’s double burden’.
Many households hire domestic help to do a few of the tasks done by housewives, like cleaning, cooking, etc. Generally, one pays Rs 1,000 and onwards per month to domestic help depending on the tasks assigned, and in case of taking care of children or the elderly, the amount can go higher.
Let’s not forget, we still complain about the quality of work delivered by the domestic help and there are time constraints involved too. The cost per month is open to increase/decrease depending on the location of your house. Simply put, if a housewife does all these tasks in other houses, she will have an earning and will be valued as an essential in the functioning of the respective household. The service provided by a woman in her household is not only about giving love and care, it contributes to the savings of the household that otherwise may escalate the family’s expenditure.
Let us talk about the recognition given to housewives’ work by the government. Most of you must have heard about Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in policy-level discussions. To put it simply, GDP provides an economic snapshot of a country i.e. it is used to estimate the size of an economy and its growth rate. It’s one of the critical ways of calculating how economic policies of a country should be shaped.
In India’s GDP calculation, housewives are categorised as economically unproductive, putting them in the same category as beggars and prisoners. A report titled MIND THE GAP: The State of Employment in India and published by OXFAM India in March 2019 recommends to adopt and implement the International Conference of Labour Statisticians (ICLS) 2013 resolution on the definition of work, i.e. ‘any activity performed by persons of any sex and age to produce goods or provide services for use by others or for own use.’
The second part includes services provided in the house for family members. However, this is yet to be considered by the Indian government. This influences, to a great degree, how a housewife’s work is perceived at the societal level. It leads to their lack of decision-making power, low self-esteem and a position to fulfill any personal ambition beyond house affairs. Assuming that women are financially dependent on men, those who suffer from domestic abuse are even less capable of getting out.
Last but not the least, women suffer from the guilt of not being able to manage household responsibilities. In Indian households, many of us have seen/been told how male members are not to be engaged in any household tasks, and if they do, it’s seen as a failure on the woman’s part. Today, we do see some men sharing household responsibilities, especially in households where both partners are working professionals. Yet, that guilt is always there in some form.
We call ourselves woke, a ‘modern generation’, and yet becoming a full-time housewife/homemaker makes many of us cringe (it used to make me cringe), afraid of the existing societal perception as being disposable with no ambition. It will take time for us to break away from the guilt and shame deeply ingrained by family systems and over the years, reinforced by media channels.
Like me, you must be wondering what the solution is. Various economists from across the globe have suggested methods to measure and include the unpaid work done by housewives in the national income. Additionally, an online portal, Change.org, has a running campaign on removing the housewife’s role from the category of ‘non-worker’ in the upcoming census calculation, 2021.
It is time for us to take this conversation to every household, irrespective of economic status. We have to start recognising domestic work by housewives as not only their expression of love, but additionally, for its invaluable contribution to the functioning of an individual and a country’s growth. It needs to be, if not more, given as much importance as we would to any other profession.
Living under a lockdown has given us a first-hand experience of what it takes to manage a house. I hope this will help each of us to value and respect a housewife’s work going forward. I know I will be honoured to take care of my house and my family as a homemaker. This, I will do with a similar ferocity of ambition as my mother. An ambition of contributing to the country’s progress and setting the foundation for all achievements, just like my mother did.
*The word ‘housewife’ has been used deliberately instead of the word ‘homemaker’ in various instances, as a reminder of the perception of women’s role in domestic work.