In Poll Season, Why Women’s Care Labour Needs To Be Debated

When politicians promise to pay for care work they are putting a value on unpaid labour but they also end up reinforcing social norms about ‘women’s work’

Iss desh ki har mahila aath ghante ghar ke bahar job karti hai aur phir aath ghante ghar mein job karti hai (every woman in this country works for 8 hours outside and another 8 hours inside their homes),” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi had said at a recent election rally.

He is right: women spent approximately 7.5 hours on paid economic activities and another 7.8 hours on unpaid domestic and care work in 2019, according to the Time Use Survey for that year. But men spent 11 hours on paid economic activities and only 2.8 hours on unpaid work inside their homes. This shows that women end up juggling care responsibilities along with the demands of employment.

For long, feminists have been arguing that women’s ‘reproductive labour’ sustains the ‘productive labour’ activities in capitalist patriarchies. Productive work can be exchanged for monetary value, unlike reproductive labour which is hidden and peripheral to the final economic output. “When we [women] struggle for wages, we struggle unambiguously and directly against our social role,” Silvia Federici, who was involved in the 1970s wages for housework movement, wrote

How should women’s work be then valued and measured? If governments start handing out money for housework, that could mean two things: one, that women’s work will be seen but (de)valued because it will reinforce the cultural norm that makes it their responsibility, and second, it might absolve the State the responsibility of recognising unpaid domestic and care work as a critical constraint for women’s engagement in other activities.

So why are politicians raising the question of care work today? To understand that let us first consider the two forms of care work: direct and indirect. The first involves a “process of personal and emotional engagement” such as breastfeeding children, caring for the elderly and so on, and the latter is about handling domestic chores such as cleaning, cooking, and washing. While indirect care can be more easily outsourced, only some direct care tasks can be outsourced. 

Both kinds of care work can be paid or unpaid. For instance, Accredited Social Health Activists (ASHAs), Anganwadi Workers performing COVID-19 duties and domestic helpers who cook and clean are remunerated for their care work. But in a typical heteronormative Indian household, a woman is not remunerated for tutoring children, cooking for the family, ensuring that the sick or elderly take their medicines on time, or even managing groceries. 

When The State And Politicians Step In

In 2021, some state governments began promising stipends to homemakers. In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, the opposition and ruling party offered stipends to homemakers. Kamal Hasan’s party Makkal Needhi Maiam was the forerunner amongst them in Tamil Nadu. In Assam and Kerala, the Congress party offered Rs 2000 per month to homemakers and, in West Bengal, the chief minister offered Rs 1000 per month. Goa’s Griha Adhar scheme has been providing a maximum of Rs 1,500 for “addressing the problem of spiralling prices and providing support to housewives/homemakers from middle, lower middle, and poor sections of society” since 2016. 

The law too has set a precedent for valuing women’s unpaid domestic work. In 2021, the Supreme Court’s civil judgement in Kirti and Anr Etc v Oriental Insurance Company granted a revised compensation to the claimant to include the cost of a demised homemaker’s services. This was calculated based on the opportunity cost of homemaker’s notional earnings for minimum wage unskilled work

Even Paid Care Work is Devalued

The Congress has promised to double the central share of frontline care workers. BehanBox has reported that increase in monetary compensation is only one of the demands of care workers. The non-regularised nature of this employment and multiple responsibilities are other problems.

For instance, in 2018, the central share of Anganwadi Workers and Anganwadi Helpers increased by Rs 1,500 and Rs 750 to Rs 4,000 and Rs 2,250, respectively. The total compensation, including the state’s share, is telling (Figure 1). Analysing a few states’ contribution to Anganwadi Workers’ and Helpers’ honorariums showed that Tamil Nadu, Goa, and Telangana provide a significantly higher share than Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Manipur.

Figure 1: Some states provide much higher compensation to Anganwadi Workers and Helpers than others
Source: Lok Sabha Question on ‘Welfare of Anganwadi Workers and Helpers’ answered on February 2, 2024.

‘We Need Some Space Too’

Nancy Folbre, a feminist economist who works on care labour, has written extensively on how paid care labour, primarily performed by women, is undervalued. Workers are not paid for the full range of services even though this labour creates huge benefits for the society. 

In a highly informal economy such as India’s, care labour is even more hidden and devalued. Even if we were to consider the opportunity cost (swapping time spent on performing care activities for other ‘productive’ activities) of performing care labour, it could still lead to poor valuation of this work because of the unmet demand for women’s paid employment and prevailing cultural norms. It is no surprise then that even existing paid forms of care work performed by frontline workers is monetarily subsidised and not regularised but is also a reinforcement of the idea that it is women’s work. 

In 2021, when the promises to provide monetary compensation for women’s housework were peaking, I conducted a study to understand urban women’s perception of ‘work’, ‘care’, and ‘burden’, especially as the lockdown erased the distance between the ‘public’ and domestic. Not all women saw this ‘extra’ responsibility as work even though it meant that they had less time for themselves. 

One woman told me: “As working mothers, we need free space. I do not get that time anymore. I organised my work for some time but have mostly been lost for the past year. All this is a burden. I have friends who teach from home…and (but) we relate to each other because we sleep less. We stay awake so we can get some time of our own.” 

Another study looked at how urban women in paid employment also justified spousal violence against themselves more than the women not engaged in such work. This can be attributed to what the researchers refer to as the “female guilt channel”. What challenges gendered norms then?

Unresolved Debate

The past decade has also seen an increase in women’s voter turnout. Perhaps such promises of wages for housework, or other policies that recognise their domestic work burden, are ways to woo them as voters. But these promises miss challenging the societal norm that puts the entire responsibility of care work on women. 

One of the young voters BehanBox spoke to recently echoed this sentiment: providing gas cylinders to women only signals that cooking is, and should be, done by women. Other policy measures such as provision of creches, tap water connections, and so on too recognise that unpaid care and domestic labour fall on women. But, similarly, none are aimed at ‘reducing’ or ‘redistributing’ such work at the household level.

Feminists are at crossroads on what it means to value women’s unpaid domestic and care work too. One side argues that without reducing and redistributing the burden of such work, and by attaching a conditionality on performing such work for monetary compensation, we will further entrench the social ascription of such work as ‘women’s work’. The other side argues that because unpaid domestic and care work are already institutionalised as women’s work, attaching a monetary value makes this work visible in the dominant patriarchal and capitalist state.

  • Tanya Rana researches on gender and governance at the Responsive Governance and Transformation Foundation.

Malini Nair (Editor)

Malini Nair is a consulting editor with Behanbox. She is a culture writer with a keen interest in gender.

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