Early this year, in India's capital city of Delhi, 29-year-old Bajrangi Gupta returned home from a day's work to find his 24-year-old wife sleeping with their newborn. Not finding enough food at home, an enraged Bajrangi beat his chronically anaemic wife to death, accusing her of being "lazy" and shirking her responsibilities of a homemaker. Even in a country that has a dismally high rate of domestic violence where every one in three women is likely to be subjected to intimate partner violence and where domestic and care work, (almost always dispensed by women,) goes unrecognised and unpaid for, this news was shocking.
It's against this backdrop that we discuss the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu's (TN) decision to give a monthly allowance to homemakers. The state has earmarked INR 7000 crore (approximately $850 million) from its exchequer for the cause. Starting September 2023, eligible women would be given INR 1000 per month from the government as a recognition of their unpaid work. While the eligibility criteria need further clarification, unofficial sources reveal that women from the low-income group of daily wage workers, fisherwomen, household help etc will be considered this year with the program's scope expanding in the future.
The government chose to call the scheme Magalir Urimai Thogai, which translates to “a woman’s entitled to money,” making it clear that women/homemakers deserve to be paid for their contribution to the households. Independent journalist Kavitha Muralidharan feels that this is a step in the right direction and the carefully chosen nomenclature speaks volumes about the intention of the government. “Many women from poor economic backgrounds are going to benefit from this,” she says.
The unpaid domestic and care work (UDCW) of mostly cooking, cleaning, and caring for children, the elderly and the sick at home, often assigned to women in households play a vital role in a market-oriented economy. After all, it's due to a woman's optimal performance at home that other members of the household and family get to participate in the growth of the economy. But this contribution is often taken for granted—who hasn’t heard a homemaker disparagingly called “jobless” or asked by her husband/other family members, “What do you do all day?”
This unpaid labour dispensed by women is part of the core reasons why the female labour force participation rate (FLFPR) in India remains one of the lowest in the world. Studies have shown that the FLFPR (of 15 years and above) declined steadily from 47.1% in 1987-88 to 23% in 2017-18 and rose to an unremarkable 32.5% by 2020-21. In the last four decades, there has been 40% more men than women in the labour force.
The National Statistical Organisation’s Time-Use Survey 2019 found that Indian women spend 8x more hours on unpaid care work than men irrespective of their educational qualification, employment or marital status. India is one of the worst-performing countries in gender non-parity in UDCW, behind only China and South Africa.
But this isn't just a problem in India. Globally too, women do at least two and a half times more unpaid domestic and care work than men. Apparently, educational qualification or employment does not make the situation any better. Last year, UK researcher Joanna Syrda found out that when mothers (and wives) out-earn fathers (or husbands), men do even less household work contrary to the expectation of a more equitable or efficient division of labour, or a fairer redistribution of work within the household. This is called “gender-neutral deviance”, a term used to refer to the behaviour of men and women in situations when they diverge from gendered expectations.
This disproportionate distribution of UDCW has a profound impact on women’s empowerment and their participation in society and the economy which impedes the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDG), specifically Goal 5.5 which mandates “ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life."
So, will the state paying women for their contribution help it be seen and recognised or will it further establish gender roles? Professor of Economics, and Founding Director, the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA) at Ashoka University, Ashwini Deshpande believes that this action will only reinforce the notion that domestic chores are primarily a woman's responsibility.
She contends that feminists argue for "recognise, reduce and redistribute." "The invisible labour of domestic chores should be recognised, but it should also be reduced and redistributed," she says. She believes that the work done for the household, which feminists call "reproductive labour", should be the responsibility of all members and INR 7000 crore (approximately $850 million)is best spent on provisions that would reduce the daily burden on women of never-ending domestic and care work, like providing quick transportation, piped gas/LPG or socialised care services.
A section of people, however, feel that this is a step in the right direction because recognising and valuing a woman’s contribution to the household must precede reduction and redistribution. Prabha Kotiswaran, Professor of Law and Social Justice at Kings College, London, in her research paper An Ode to Altruism: How Indian Courts Value Unpaid Domestic Work, reviewed how Indian courts and tort law had begun to recognise women’s UDCW by way of compensation to dependents of female victims under the Indian Motor Vehicles Act 1988. In 2010, India’s apex court delivered a significant judgment in the case of a 39-year-old accident victim, paying an ode to the altruism of Indian homemakers and why their labour must be adequately recognised and remunerated. The court was cognisant of the fact that the homemaker did more than the market could ever recognise.
Gender stereotyping is a strong argument against TN’s decision but considering the distribution of unpaid work is already quite lopsided, this decision cannot make it worse. On the other hand, Prabha sees a lot of positives around this decision. “It could prove to be an incentive to work better, to get paid more, to bargain more, and improve women's workforce participation,” she says.
Entrusting homemakers with extra income could result in better health outcomes for them since women in poor households often eat poorly, prioritising other members’ health. They would most likely invest it in children’s education as well. But most importantly, Prabha feels that it could provide a buffer against financial precarity (like economic or health shocks such as COVID) since most poor women are engaged in the unorganised sector. Prabha sees different kinds of messaging around the state’s decision but primarily it is one of social security. Tamil Nadu will serve as an example of how this will play out in the future.