What does being a homemaker and a mother really mean for the vast majority of Indian women? In an essay in The Atlantic last year, Helen Lewis, journalist and author of Difficult Women: A History of Feminism in 11 Fights, pointed out some home truths which resonate with millions of women across the world. “When people try to be cheerful about social distancing and working from home, noting that William Shakespeare and Isaac Newton did some of their best work while England was ravaged by the plague, there is an obvious response: Neither of them had child-care responsibilities.”
For millions of people in many parts of the world, things have not changed that much.
In India, the situation is particularly stark as a new analysis from the Centre for Global Development reconfirms. The Global Childcare Workload from School and Preschool Closures During the Covid-19 Pandemic, by Charles Kenny and George Yang of the US-based think tank, estimates that women around the world each provided as much as an additional 173 hours in childcare for free during the pandemic. This is about three times more than men (59 hours). The figures from India are even more extreme.
According to the study, which draws on published data from multiple sources including Unesco and OECD, the estimated additional unpaid childcare burden per woman because of pandemic-related care burdens between January and October 2020 in India was 360 hours. The corresponding figure for men was 33 hours. The unpaid childcare burden per woman in India in a “normal” year is estimated to be 2,380 hours.
None of this should come as a huge surprise to anyone in India not totally removed from ground realities.
Everyone, including Bollywood, pays tribute to motherhood. Think of Shashi Kapoor’s iconic line from that 1975 blockbuster Deewar — “Mere paas Ma Hain”. A noble sentiment. But pedestalising mothers can lead to motherhood being rarely unpacked in terms of the extra hours of unpaid work in the popular discourse.
Women’s unpaid care work has emerged as a big issue among progressive economists in recent years. But millions of women in India, as in many other countries, are still socialised into accepting the notion that it is “natural” for women to be tasked with unpaid domestic work. And they should not complain.
But when we talk about women’s “natural” role in the context of unpaid work, what is traded off, and at what cost?
The first-of-its-kind pan-India time use survey (TUS), released by the ministry of statistics and programme implementation last year, tossed up some telling data. The survey, that covered 4.5 lakh persons aged six years and above, across 1.4 lakh households in India, offers valuable information about the activities performed by every individual and the time spent in each of these activities during January-December 2019. The respondents were asked to recall what they did during the last 24 hours of the day of the survey.
Unsurprisingly, Indian men were found to have spent a lot more time in remunerated work. Their participation in paid employment was found to be around 57.3 per cent, compared to women, whose participation rate was only 18.4 per cent.
However, when it came to unpaid work such as cooking, cleaning or unpaid caregiving, looking after children or adults, women were way ahead. Every day, women spent nearly five hours in unpaid domestic work; for men, the corresponding figure was one hour and 37 minutes.
Sona Mitra, a feminist economist, associated with the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy (IWWAGE), has drawn attention to related troubling issues in her public presentations: according to OECD (2014) data, women in India spent an average of 5.6 hours a day in unpaid work, compared to 52 minutes a day for men (same source); ILO 2018 shows on an average women in India spent 297 minutes per day on unpaid care work, as against 31 minutes by men (in paid work, women spend only 160 minutes, compared to 360 minutes by men).
Ms Mitra points out the multiple implications of unpaid care work for women — it means increased stress and less time for many other things which women may want to do; it means reduced income earning potential, missed opportunities for upgrading skills, education, socialisation, and also leisure and entertainment.
Most important, it means entrenching the sexual division of labour, furthering gender inequalities and creating an intergenerational cycle of “unpaid work” for girls and women. The bottomline — it leaves women with fewer options and choices in life, with all attendant consequences.
While working from home may open up more opportunities for a small section of middle class and upper middle class women, for millions of others, including large numbers of not-so-poor women, the closure of schools and childcare centres, etc., during the pandemic has made things much tougher.
In an article in the Economic and Political Weekly in May 2020, Ashwini Deshpande, professor of economics at Ashoka University, presciently flagged these issues. “South Asia, India and Pakistan in particular, have among the most unequal norms of sharing domestic chores and housework. Will the WFH (work from home) regime, where middle class families have to manage without helpers, propel men to share the domestic work burden more equitably than they have done in the past? Will the pandemic shift the social norms of sharing of domestic work? Only time will tell.”
“Going forward”, wrote Prof. Deshpande, “we should use this crisis to overhaul the current system that prevents women from entering the workforce and when they do, by not rewarding them enough”.
We can do this, she added, “by recognising the myriad facets of women’s work, the need for adequate compensation, putting support structures in place that allow for an equitable sharing of domestic chores and care work, and most important, creating favourable opportunities for work and livelihoods within a conscious anti-discriminatory policy framework”.
In India, less than a quarter of women are a part of the labour force. Globally, India has amongst the lowest rates of female labour force participation, with only parts of the Arab world lagging behind us. Worryingly, this trend shows scant signs of reversal. India’s workforce continues to rapidly masculinise.
This must change, so that not only Indian women, but India realises its true potential. We must have an honest discussion about what being a mother and homemaker really mean in the India of 2021.
The writer focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org