Earlier this year, politician Kamal Hassan announced that his party, if it comes to power, will acknowledge housework as a salaried profession to empower women and put them in equal footing as their office-going husbands. Note. To empower women. Clearly, it is not a gender neutral plan and also excludes working women.
Some have applauded this announcement, while others said that housework cannot be valued with money and is against the dignity of caregivers. But the issue is much, much bigger than this. Let us look into some statistics first. The Census Report of 2011 says that there are 159.85 million women in housework as opposed to 5.79 million men. The Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation says that the time spent on housework by women is 299 minutes a day versus 97 minutes a day by men.
And now, this huge chunk of unpaid work done by women will be treated as a job. In a world where it is a challenge for women to step out of the house, you further try to put them behind the four falls, forcing them into stereotypical gender roles and reasserting how housework is a woman’s job.
Yes, there is a need to recognise that domestic work has some value, but this cannot be justified in the cult of femininity. The essentialism of woman as a wife and mother is the root cause of the problem. Why cannot men and women come together, bring up a family and get rid of romanticised inequality? ‘Division of labour at home’ surely sounds too utopian for all the women reading this article. But paying homemakers will not remove the embedded hierarchy in the house. It will only work as an excuse to stop women to have ambitions.
Simon De Beauvoir famously said in 1949,
‘Humanity is male and man defines woman not in herself, but as relative to him. He is the absolute, she is the other.’
The system of the world is such that it is created by men, keeping a man in mind, leaving hardly any space for a woman. She was simply not kept in mind. A report by the UN says that one out of three women lack access to safe toilets. A Water Aid Report says that women all over the world spend 97 billion hours/week finding a safe toilet. Over 60% of Indians do not have toilets. And the problem is more acute for women as the attitude of ‘men can go anywhere’ is not an option for women.
There is a lack of women-only washrooms in courts and police stations. I personally know female police officers who go to the washroom only with another woman for fear of safety, holes in the doors or missing locks. This leads to a decrease in women who sustain in their profession for long.
Further, let’s talk about transport. Crime surveys and empirical surveys from different parts of the world show that a majority of women are fearful of the potential violence against them in public places, particularly in low-income groups, in which women work odd hours. This leads them to change their travel patterns, strategically taking a longer route or travelling only with someone. This is a big reason for them to quit jobs.
A number of studies say that women are three times more likely to be a victim of a crime on a bus stop than in a vehicle. After 2014, Delhi ranked fourth in the ‘most dangerous public transport system for women’. So, next time a woman says that she chooses to stay at home, it needs to be seen how much of it is a really a free choice and how much a compulsion. The Guardian in 2016 rightfully asked in an article, ‘Why aren’t cities being designed for women but just for men?’
Note that 66% of women’s worktime in India gets spent on unpaid labour, while it is only 12% for men. The number of hours spent is six hours vs 13 minutes for men. In fact, men spend their leisure time watching TV and sleeping, even as women continue to work. All this extra labour is affecting women’s health immensely. A 2016 Canadian study shows this. The International Labour Organisation has said it is dangerous to work more than 48 hours a week. But do women have an option? The study also shows how women are more stressed than men due to overburdened responsibilities, which are perpetual and endless.
Workplaces function in ways that suit only men. They have timings and locations totally unrelated to the opening and closing of children’s school, childcare centres, doctors, groceries, etc. It is simply not designed for women. In the legal profession, women are paid less, with the notion that they will not be here for long so why invest in them. And yes, women do largely leave once they are married or become mothers. But who is accountable for that?
With our patriarchal, conservative society and no support for women by the system yet no dearth of impractical expectations, it is hard. We all know so many women who have taken a sabbatical from work till the “child grows up”’ or leave because of their husband’s transfer. The best response to this is in an article in the Guardian where the boss says, “I have children yet I work full time,” and the listener responds, “Yes, because your wife stays back home to take care of them.” Relatable?
And for those women who do sustain their jobs? I remember visiting a senior’s house. I waited as he returned from court with his wife (also a lawyer) after a tiring day at work. The moment they entered, he jumped on the couch, stretching himself, while she kept her bag in place and rushed to pick up the toys from the floor, attending their angry young daughter, fixing dinner with the maid and simultaneously taking a client’s calls.
The point is, somehow or the other, society pushes women back to home. It romanticises housework and says that women are just good at it, while men are just incompetent. No, women are not good at it by birth, it’s just that men have never cooperated. Giving salaries to homemakers to ‘empower’ them is just a gimmick to avoid deeper questions. It does nothing to include women in the system. It is when more women come out and become a part of decision-making that the system will become universal.
Rabindranath Tagore in his essay Nationalism in India says that while talking about nation and man-woman relationship,
‘because man is driven to professionalism, producing wealth and turning the wheel of power for his own sake or the sake of universal officialdom, he leaves the woman alone to wither and die or fight her own battles unaided, eliminating cooperation and humanity.’
Talking of cooperation, Camp Bell Soup offers on-site after-school classes and summer programmes for employees’ children. Google has subsidised childcare, including conveniences such as dry cleaning for employees. Sony Ericson pays their employees to get their house cleaned. Sweden has reserved three months of parental leave exclusively for fathers. These months cannot be transferred to the mother: the father has to use it, otherwise the couple lose it from their overall leave allowance.
Paternity leaves are also present in Iceland and South Korea. Men who take leave tend to be more involved in childcare in future and not have the entire responsibility on the mother. A Swedish study found that mothers’ future earnings increased by 7% of every month of leave taken by fathers.
The culture of paid work needs a radical reform. It is a fact that none of us could do without the invisible, unpaid work carers. It is time this unpaid works stops burdening the women. Design the paid workplace to account for it. By accounting for women’s care-responsibilities in urban planning, we make it easier for women to fully engage in the paid workforce. By accounting for the sexual violence women face and introducing preventive measures, we release them from fear. No, it is not a matter of resources, but priority. Women are almost 50% of the population, but simply never prioritised.
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