Since the age of 15, I was trained to be my mother’s helper with household chores. She would cook, clean, shop for ration, and always keep a track of the things we were losing around the house. I was taught to follow in her footsteps as the ultimate guide to adulthood.
Only once I started interning under independent, working women, did I realise that there was more to growing up than taking care of a home.
I went on to read about Sarojini Naidu, a supporter of civil and feminist rights as well as the chairwoman of the All India Women’s Conference (AIWC). I learnt about Indira Gandhi, a caretaker of our nation as the former prime minister.
I met Shreya Soni, founder of DSSC Ideas Lab, Delhi. I reached out to Marryam Reshi, a renowned food critic and writer. But, these are only a handful of examples.
While 60% of Indian women are engaged as homemakers, only 23.4% are employed or actively looking for employment. I tried to picture the home life of these women, and always ended up wondering, “Are female homemakers any different from those working outside?”
Since the pre-partition era, women have propagated equitable recognition of household labour in relation to external paid jobs. The report titled Women’s Role in Planned Economy (WRPE, 1940) gave the first call for a social and economic valuation of housework done by women.
It demanded doing away with the inferiority attached to such chores, and argued for compensations in kind, like a share in family income, life insurance, and granting of other assets to inculcate a sense of dignity for women handling domestic chores.
The dynamics of homemaking, if anything, has a greater curve than the dynamics of a structured retainer. But, gaining impact in waves over the next few decades, the ideal has now become an objective promise of fixed payment for domestic work, in modern society.
In January 2021, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India recognised the nuances of homemaking in its verdict on a case regarding a road accident leading to the death of an unemployed woman.
As the conversation picked up momentum in the Indian society once again, the debate at the forefront became one of monetary versus social value.
While many have argued against putting a price on a cultural phenomenon such as this one, others have shed light on how the non-monetary ways in which our view of domestic work can be elevated, rather than simply arguing over how much it’s worth.
The issue of compensating women for household work is riddled with complexities.
Shabnam didi, from Majkhali village in Uttarakhand, transitioned from being a daily wage weaver to a permanent staff member at Umang Himalaya, about 6 months ago. Before that, she used to knit products at home for Umang HandKnits, for which she was paid on a per-piece basis.
Back then, her priorities lay within the house and the idea of making her work a permanent part of her life did not sit well with her. Now, with a stable salary, she works round the clock to keep her house in order, while supporting it financially too.
However, while her work during office hours is compensated, her extra efforts are paid for only in terms of personal satisfaction. Many homemakers are unable to attach a value or price to the way they serve their families. This often makes an objective review of compensation difficult.
Paid jobs are considered as a responsibility, whereas household management is seen as a way of life. Many women will agree.
90% of Indian women were occupied with unpaid domestic handling as of 2019. About 20.7% of the total number of women was occupied with paid work. As the social milieu constructs homemaking as an obvious duty of the lady of the house, women looking to earn an additional income seek extra work outside, to fill any free hours they get beyond house work.
On the other hand, only about 10% of Indian men are a part of the total domestic handlers. Paying only housewives for the hours they put in at home might run the risk of stereotyping household chores as a gendered role even further.
What makes more sense in light of this is to neutralise household work as a moral, human responsibility, rather than as a paid job for women. It needs to be recognised as a parallel to work outside the house, which may be done by any of the existing genders, irrespective of their official, employment status.
Another concern that comes into mind is that of the compensating source. Having the husband pay the wife may deepen dependency on the spouse instead of inculcating a sense of independence and worth.
On the contrary, it could potentially limit the opportunity for women to go out and indulge in social and economic activities of their own choice. It might, hence, be a better idea to have the state step in as a provider of gender-neutral subsidy and welfare, instead of a payroll.
This could propagate basic housekeeping as a welfare responsibility, rather than a full time job devoid of due respect.
A 2018 survey showed that only 13% of Indian households have a washing machine. While means like public transport and other infrastructure are built keeping in mind the aspirations of a working nation, behind closed doors, women have bare minimum assistance with the extreme physical labour they engage in.
In the Himalayas, for instance, along with the social and moral obligations, every milieu is replete with, the culture comes riddled with terroneous complexity. The sylvan beauty visible from every window contains, ever so often, a beeline of women carrying water buckets by their waists or logs on their heads.
Winters are preceded by two months of fodder collection and wood drying because food for livestock cannot be collected when the slopes are blanketed in snow. The fulfilment of every little need is becoming tougher in the mountains.
It becomes evident every time you see a woman lifting buckets of rainwater or her mother-in-law standing under the raging sun, gathering produce from the farmland she had sowed with devotion. Feeding the family means doing everything from growing the grain to cooking it.
How can money alone change this deeply entrenched lifestyle of hard work? Keeping in mind the country’s diversity, recognition of the need for a smooth running of one’s household is the need of the hour.
While those achieving accolades in their jobs and businesses are duly acknowledged, no attention is paid to people who make day-to-day existence at home possible. More incentives and machinery needs to be allocated towards meeting basic requirements.
These include easy access to water, home equipment like washing machines, gas cylinders and stoves, water purifiers, vacuum cleaners etc.
Homemaking needs to be transformed into dignified labour, sitting in equal balance with office jobs.