The Dilemma of Unpaid Household Work

Patriarchy has existed in our society for ages. While researchers are conflicted about the actual emergence of patriarchy, there are multiple agreed-upon factors and consequences of patriarchy. These consequences span across all socio-political and economic institutions. One such characteristic of a patriarchal society is the public-private divide between the binary sexes. Women have been limited to the private sphere of life. Where they are choked within the four walls only to perform the role of a caretaker, this characteristic of patriarchy is intrinsically contested on whether it is a significant factor or a deontological.

With the emergence of post-modernity, the prima-facie outlook of any patriarchal society would be that this gender-based public-private divide has diminished considerably, if not wholly. However, this post-modernity is a disguise where practices of patriarchy, gender-based stereotypes, and heteronormativity still exist. On the one hand, the number of women in the workforce has increased, but on the other hand, they are still seen as primary household workers, whether employed or not. Therefore, it is safe to say that while societies have progressed in terms of women working in public spaces, the underlying reality still upholds the patriarchal status of women as household workers.

There also exist dilemmas in a common observation of Indian society. Most official forms of education, employment, and training add “housewife” as an occupation for mothers. At the same time, it is believed that the work of a ‘housewife’ is divine, and a woman is obliged to perform the duties of raising a family and being the primary caretaker. The glorification of this gender-based role creates a veil of ignorance even among the oppressed group. It creates a notion that this role-performativity of genders creates an eternal “balance” in society and maintains order and harmony. That is how one patriarchal idea leads to another, creating a vicious cycle that is normalised and glorified across societies and cultures.

A study by the UN shows that “women on average do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men, with long-term consequences for their economic security.” In the case of India, much data suggests the same conclusion that women invest their time much more than men do in household work. Despite that, many people still like to deny these empirical facts and uphold the divine nature of “motherhood” or “womanhood.” Courtrooms across India have often supported this glorification of womanhood and denied wages for household work because monetising this work will harm the sanctity of this role and that of women. The judiciary is responsible for supporting cultural ethics and principles, but doing so at the cost of marginalising an identity is questionable. The validity of these wages will be further deliberated upon in the article, but the petitions for paid household work being denied only on the grounds of these “cultural ethics” is unsatisfactory and objectionable.

One such case occurred in 2013 when the Kerala High Court ruled, “We are also of the opinion that to put a price tag for the work of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and so on is an affront to womanhood and an insult to motherhood.”

In this group of marginalised identities, we, thus, get two sub-groups in terms of household work - one in which women only work as housekeepers and do not earn, and the other where women participate in the workforce (formal or informal)and handle the household work as well. This ‘double shift’ creates more dismal conditions for women in the workforce as the employers hesitate to hire them for their added household responsibilities. It is a significant factor that amplifies the gender pay gap as employers excuse this disparity based on gender. Adding to this is the social stigma that both the working as well as non-working women face. The blames of irresponsible handling of children and the family and not participating in family income generation are significant stigmas faced by women.

The household work done by women does not only go unpaid but unrecognised too.

Whether the household work should be paid or not is, more often than not, answered only in terms of giving wages to women. According to some researchers, that will enhance the recognition of household work in the country’s income, incentivise the household work, and pay women for “what they deserve.” However, the outlook of policy change where women will be paid for doing household work is highly problematic. Most evidently, it will intensify the status quo by keeping women in this private sphere, cooking and cleaning. It will directly impact the already minimum number of women in other positions of power.

Decades of work towards the emancipation of women in various academic and professional fields will go to waste because this policy will substantiate the need for women within a household. Another criticism is that the paid household work for women attracts that the men will pay for this household work. That might seem revolutionary at the onset and create tangible changes, but the fundamental idea behind this policy is awkward. It validates the patriarchal beliefs that:

1) Men are the sole bread-owners in a house, and

2) men are controlling and dominant so that they pay women to be the caretakers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has further magnified these problems. Data suggests that women leaving the workforce has inflated due to the pandemic. It means that women will be further pushed into the household work, hampering the sex ratio at workplaces.

As utopian as it might sound, the only way out is that men and women share the work within and outside the household. If a working woman continues to take care of her family, a working man must be obliged to do the same. The vast disparities between the time spent by women in household chores and that done by men will essentially shrink to a large extent, hence, creating an egalitarian society.

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