Updated: Jan 10
With the ongoing pandemic, despite it being a universal calamity, it has had an unequal and disadvantaged impact on women, with its effects on the society economically and socially. Gendered patterns and differences have been seen historically in earlier epidemics and crisis from HIV to Ebola, researchers have studied that men, women and non-binary populations experience these diseases and its situation very differently. There are studies available on how women were affected in other countries in the past but very little in our Indian context which is why it is difficult to fully understand the impact of COVID-19 on different genders, because gender-disaggregated data are not easily available. However, this is why we need research on such themes even to get policies implemented.
A pioneer feminist Simone de Beauvoir in her book, The Second Sex (Beauvoir, 1949) examines gender as a social, economic and cultural construct framing housework as a necessary condition to conform to the patriarchal norms of femininity. Likewise, this is being practiced and reinforced till date in our society. As we focus on one of the most affected or rather say neglected category is women, especially women doing the household chores. Although the demand for gender equity for work in domestic and public spheres isn’t a new concept, the pandemic along with worsening it also undervalued it as a problem by invisiblising it. Women who still managed to hold their jobs or women who are educating themselves in institutions, willingly or unwillingly had to start doing ‘double-shifts’ for from home and work ‘for’ home. Due to the Pandemic, the home has become ground zero and without the availability of domestic help, it is evident and has reminded us that the survival in life mostly axes on cooking, cleaning and caregiving/taking as much as it does on enough money to sustain the life.
Housework is the most commonly used term in these times and yet is undefined hence vaguely used in a set connotation. In 2020, in various WhatsApp groups, a category of jokes and forwards were being shared of how men also are doing some work to glorify the chores that women do daily and the other kind of forwards were that this lockdown was no different for ‘housewives’ because the used to stay indoors and did all the work. These forwards reinforce the gendered divisions of domestic work and the hierarchy within the family. Some women even take pride in it, because since years women have been accustomed directly or obliquely to map their self-worth and status to how well they perform their traditional and cultural ‘gendered’ roles. The house duties done by them are mostly classified as ‘unproductive’ labour and the ones not doing a job as ‘housewives. The very term ‘housewife’ connotes a woman who doesn’t work outside in a capitalist market, making all the domestic work invisible. However, paradoxically, any working woman in a heterosexual family is unconsciously compelled to perform the ‘second shift’ of house chores indirectly and inadvertently making them all a housewife. This housework is mostly not even a matter of choice for women but a patriarchal norm that women have to perform.
According to the research by OECD (Centre, 2014), women spend up to 352 minutes per day on domestic work, 577% more than men (52 minutes) according to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development data[i]. In a household setup, a woman wakes up early to do the chores and cook, helps the elderly, husband and children, and sleeps after every work is done shows how the working hours for a woman are longer. An interesting observation that can be seen in the media representation, in an advertisement of a Pain-relief gel[ii] a woman is shown doing the household work and suddenly experiences back ache, the whole work stops and gets worried but the said pain relief gel is given to her and that magically fixes her pain in five minutes. The portrayal is such that because it works on the body so quick that women do not need to stop working even to take care of their health because their main ‘responsibility’ is to take care of others in the house.
One major reason of household work being devalued and looked down upon is also because it gives no surplus money as is unpaid work. In the capitalist world that we live in, any work that doesn’t pay is seen unnecessary and of not important. Therefore, it shifts down to the women who are not seen capable in the marketplace. As it doesn’t contribute to the economic development of the state it is often neglected. This shows how recognition is the first step for empowerment and to count it as genuine work. This can also help in how we look a ‘labour’ and will give it a wholesome outlook, not only labour is exchange of services but also the work that keeps our household intact.
Unpaid work is an important aspect of economic activity and is crucial for the well-being of people, households, and for the economy. The discourse on women’s unpaid work is completely relevant in the Indian context as women’s labor force participation rate is extremely low and is witnessing a declining trend recently perhaps because majority of them are moving into the domain of ‘domestic duties’ (Fletcher E). Since the beginning the Classical and Neo-classical economists have measured unpaid work not as an economic good or market good thus keeping it outside the production frontier which is why feminists for a long time have been raising their voices for unpaid work to gain recognition. The recognition is important because just be rejecting the unpaid work isn’t a solution as even if women go out and work, when they come back who will do the work will still remain a question and as traditionally the work is gendered it will again fall on the shoulders of women. Which is why we need to focus on the aspect that needs introspection is whether Indian society has or ever made any development towards de-feminization of the chores at all and the brutal return of the housework and its equation with women during lockdown sets an opportunity to seek the reality which was hidden so far.
ADDITIONAL BURDEN OF UNPAID CARE WORK ON WOMEN:
Every person faced the burden of house/ care work in the lockdown but when it comes to child and elderly care, the burden largely falls on the women because that is the ‘gendered role’ assigned to them. The stand remains that woman have had a devasting impact especially the working women who may have been forced to quit their jobs only to take the responsibility of looking after their children and homeschool them as primary caretakers. As we all know the schools are shut since march 2020 and online mode of education is being preferred. Young children need supervision while attending classes the burden of which falls on the mothers. It leads to having less time for their job/paid work and giving more time than men of the family doing care work. According to a sociologist Heejung Chung in her work (Chung, 2020) writes “mothers across the world are also undoubtedly having to carry out the “third shift” – ensuring the emotional wellbeing of not only her children but also parents and other family members. In other words, they are in charge of the mental load of worrying about the family.” Because in the pre-covid world some women still had access to childcare facilities which helped them work but with the absence of those services women are being dragged back to the household care work responsibilities.
The working mothers then juggle between work and supervising children which makes it hard for them to multitask them all together. This has resulted into women quitting jobs. We can see that around the globe and in India, more women have lost jobs during COVID-19. A very recent report by the Center for Sustainable Employment at Azim Premji University (Development, 2021, pp. 5-7) clearly states that during the first wave/lockdown merely 7 percent of men lost their jobs, in comparison to 47 per cent of women who along with losing their jobs did not even return to work by the end of the year. The women working in informal sector faced even worse.
Although the impact of covid-19 is yet to be understood, it has given us a reality check and a critical time to prospect and create more effective, comprehensive and resilient systems. One thing that could be concluded from the previous paragraphs is that covid-19 as a popular narrative has been called a great equalizer but historically and even now it can be seen that marginalized communities and women have suffered double the amount hence the narrative also needs to change that covid might have made men enter the kitchen but the onus of work done by women is much much more . Care giving needs to be considered as gender neutral work and must be put at the top of the nation’s concerns and the government should work on to come up with better care systems. For which it is important to re-asses the gendered domestic work, broaden the context of household and important to ensure on integrating ‘data’ related to women from the ground and then implement relief schemes for a holistic approach for a paradigm shift in societal norms to change the status of the women and provisions in social structure. One solution could be to consider redistribution of care work among both men and women in the family which will help in ‘de-feminising’ the care work. Funds and policies should be dedicated towards the progress of care services for elderly children and their education. For which the state can generate jobs and many of which could be taken up by women itself. This equitable and supportive childcare and maternal programmes could help reduce the ‘motherhood penalty’ and the guilt women fight on everyday basis.
Beauvoir, S. d. (1949). The Second Sex. New York: The Vintage Books.
Centre, O. D. (2014). Unpaid Care Work: The missing link in the analysis of gender gaps in labour outcomes.
Chung, H. (2020). Return of the 1950s housewife? How to stop coronavirus lockdown reinforcing sexist gender roles. The Conversation .
Development, C. f. (2021). State of Working India . Azim Premji University.
Fletcher E, P. R. (2019). Women and work in India: descriptive evidence and a review of potential policies. HKS working paper no. RWP18-004 Center for International Development Harvard University, Cambridge.
Ambedkar University Delhi