Indian women work much harder than men – is anyone listening?

All women work. Even those who are not considered ‘working,’ work, and work hard. That is because they are the ones who are usually responsible for all care work in the family. This is true for the entire world but truer for India and other South Asian countries. According to a global report published by Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women in India spend on an average about eight hours per day on unpaid care work as against less than one hour spent by men. Globally women engage in unpaid care work about three times more than men. This means that although almost all countries in the world need to work hard to change this scenario, the challenge is far more daunting in India.

We need to ask two important questions in this regard. First, why is it important to change this? And second, what are the ways to change it? We need to change this for the good of everyone, women themselves for sure but also for the society as a whole and for the economy. The disproportionate share of care work makes the double burden of women is heavy and often pushes them out of paid work, and also into domesticity. The 2019 ILO report identified unpaid care work as the biggest impediment to women’s formal employment, as it engaged 21.7 per cent of women between 18-54 years of age, as opposed to 1.7 per cent of men. When such disparities are commonplace and even celebrated in a society, it is not easy to change the social norms that widely and deeply support women’s domesticity. Young children, both girls and boys, internalise these norms right since childhood, and then this is what gets perpetuated as ‘ideal’.

Economically, not counting care work for the family as productive activity adversely affects the estimates of national income accounting. More importantly, it transmits the message about what work is valued and what is not, and this has implications even for the paid care work outside the family. It is not a coincidence that all our care-work related jobs and industries are highly feminized and characterized by low wages, low status and low social security with almost non-existent avenues for growth. Think of ASHA workers in the Health department, Anganwadi workers in the Department of Women and Child Development, hordes of garment workers. Both private and public sector behave the same, and hence public sector has failed in being instrumental to enable a change in this regard. If we are serious about gender equality both as a value and as an international commitment in the form of Sustainable Development Goal (SDG), we need to change this, and change this soon.

How to change this situation? These norms do not change overnight. But experience, especially in a number of European countries, tells us that public policy interventions are important instruments to enable these changes. For instance, school and college curricula including teacher training curricula and pedagogy need to integrate these values both in theory and practice to influence young children right since early age. Non-transferable and equal paternity leave, which cannot be taken together by both the spouses, can perhaps force at least some men to take equal responsibility of parenting. Change in wage policies for sectors that are currently highly feminized can go a long way. Equally important is to avoid all regressive titles of schemes – e.g., names such as Apni beti apna dhan, Bhagyalakshmi and Dhananlakshmi for cash transfer schemes that are meant to encourage couples to value their daughters end up objectifying the girls – defeating the very purpose of these schemes! Making public provisions for easily accessible and good-quality facilities for child-care, elderly care, clean drinking water and sanitation is known to ease the burden. But it is important to synchronise the service with the message – access to LPG should not come with a message that only women can be cooks. Symbolism plays an important role in perpetuating patriarchy and it has to be important in breaking this as well!

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

  • Note – A slightly abridged version of this article was published in Dainik Jagran on 8 March 2020 on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2020

Jyotsna Jha
Director, CBPS

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