Pandemic epiphany: Why unpaid domestic work shouldn’t be the woman’s burden only

GENDER INEQUALITY AND HOUSEHOLD WORK

Cooking and other household chores by women are unpaid and invisibilised. But the pandemic has brought the realisation to many the extent of this work. Pic: Gagan Kaur/Pexels

It is a bright morning. My mind is filled with optimism and plans, even as I watch my mother carry on with the daily chores all by herself. Almost all of the work that goes into running the household is performed by my mother; others in the family do not share the load.


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A profound sensitivity dawns, catalyzed by my own consciousness and on realizing that the entire work is performed by the only woman in a family of five for the house to even function. After completing all the regular chores, she sat down and that is when I got into a conversation with her and understood the things that she has had to let go to perform her daily domestic duties. This is also when I concluded with certainty that she has never had any quality time for herself.

There are two gnawing questions that have arisen from this realization, the first being, do we need a ‘pandemic’ to realize that house chores have to be shared among the members of the family? It surely happened to be so, in my case. This is partially because of sheer negligence and partially due to lack of physical presence at home all these years.

Home and household chores

A home is supposed to be the safest space for everyone. And due respect has to be given to all the members, without any bias. It is a space that should be gender-equal in every way, a space that is very intimately shared by all family members without any stress, burden and special load on a particular person or gender.

The United Nations Organisation defines ‘unpaid work’ as work that could be taken ‘to comprise all productive activities outside the official labor market done by individuals for their own households or for others. These activities are productive in the sense that they use scarce resources to satisfy human wants.’

House chores, house maintenance, care for children and for the sick and the elderly are various forms of unpaid work. Often, this kind of unpaid work is delegated and assigned primarily on the basis of gender; for the woman of the house, this becomes inevitable work, resulting in a mountain of menial household chores.

There are theories that assign economic value to such unpaid work, depending on the economic status of the household. However, I also think that there may be limitations in this exercise, as certain work could be performed only within the framework of the family and cannot be related to a market context.

Unpaid Work — India vs the world

The second question that my lockdown observations aroused is, if we move away from the household scenario to the larger global picture, how are Indian women in general placed? Data tells us that India stands third, following Turkey & Mexico, in terms of the time that women spend on unpaid work, relative to men. Indian women spend up to 352 minutes/day against the global average of 272 minutes. Indian men spend up to 52 minutes against the global average of 138 minutes (OECD). The distribution shows that women in urban areas spend more time on unpaid work than women in rural areas.

Thought process behind the gap

In India, women inevitably bear the burden of unpaid work because tasks such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood are highly gendered; patriarchal norms dictate that women perform these and other care-giving work and validate men’s failure to assume domestic responsibility, with the result that women’s unequal social status is further entrenched.

The practice of assigning household chores and care work to women alone has existed for a long time, and women themselves have come to accept and even believe that they are the ones who have to perform these duties for their home, without an option.

Nano, micro & macro measures: From thought to policy

A thought process could start at the level of individual households that understands and underlines the importance of equal sharing of work essential for homes to function. This social conditioning that starts at the individual level would in time seep into national consciousness and eventually into policy framing and mandates. This would make for a gender-equal society, where the gap and inequalities are bridged. Globally, the involvement of organisations that organize and create frameworks for people’s overall well-being could result in the creation of a balance.

Equal spaces might look like..

Changing individual thought and action towards more equal contribution to domestic work can lead to changes in the dependency patterns within a family and in the long run, create an environment that is gender equal and secure. This is also a sustainable model at different scales, in line with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals ( SDG 3 – Good Health & Well Being; SDG 5 – Gender Equality, SDG 10 – Reduced Inequalities).

Benefits of such practices would be both tangible and intangible and could be reflected in the overall well-being of the family, where there is no disproportionate burden on any particular member of the family.


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About Viswanathan Sridhar 1 Article
Viswanathan Sridhar is an architect, fascinated by people and their spaces. He curates urban livelihood stories on Instagram & Medium in the name of Urban Narrator.

1 Comment

  1. Instead of considering this on gender basis, I would prefer to approach this as equitable distribution of work. This would be fairer. Otherwise, it would border on exploitation unless of course if the work outside home is the exclusive domain of the male. Although the times are changing, rural and urban Indian worlds are quite different and the worlds of the poor (who are far more in number) and the worlds of the middle class are also different. It would not be inappropriate if separate studies are taken. Otherwise, generalisations would tend to be unrealistic partial truths.

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