Time to shed light on invisible and unpaid work of women in India

Unpaid work imposes on women the costs of missed opportunities for education, skill acquisition or improvement, and public participation

ByBrinda Adige

Published Apr 30, 2024 | 11:46 AMUpdatedApr 30, 2024 | 11:46 AM

Woman cooking at home. (iStock)

If women’s unpaid work is calculated, it will account for 7.5 percent of India’s GDP, claims SBI’s Ecowrap report. Other surveys claim it is 39 percent of the GDP.

That is roughly around  ₹22.7 crore of unpaid work done annually by women in India — just a little less than the construction sector.

Tertiary (services) sector employees contribute 54 percent to the GDP. Still, women — 51 percent of the country’s population — have no value for their work in their homes. This work is unpaid and undervalued.

Women do not have a choice but to labour and undertake care jobs inside the house. Like poverty, unpaid work is feminised and invisibilised.

Women have historically been forced to carry a disproportionate burden of unpaid domestic and home care responsibilities, placing them at a higher risk of depressive and anxiety symptoms.

This gap only continues to widen the inequality gap and highlights women’s escalating burden of unpaid care work.

Though family members make different contributions to ensure the smooth functioning of the household, women carry out most of the domestic and care work.

Unpaid domestic work by women is a concept gaining visibility across the world. However, Indian society is largely silent and does its best to ignore the economics of women’s domestic work and what this contributes to the well-being of a largely patriarchal society, treating this as the duties of women.

Sadly, women are also bigger proponents of patriarchy and, together with the rest of society, have no qualms about assigning every unpaid job, especially domestic chores and caregiving, to women.

Related: Origins of discrimination

Patriarchy bane of unpaid work

Girls aged six years and above spend over 430 minutes — 7 hours and 10 minutes in a 24-hour period  — in unpaid work, carrying out household chores and caring for elderly or ill family members.

Yet, the status of women’s work unaccounted for in the labour market is rarely discussed in terms of the economics that underline the contributions in this sector.

Unpaid domestic and care work is often perceived as low value and is invisible in mainstream economics, underpinned by entrenched patriarchal institutions. The national accounting systems, too, fail to factor in women’s total contributions. The gendered nature of unpaid work has become more apparent during the Covid-19 pandemic, and this has not changed much.

Women’s unpaid work in farming, agriculture, cattle grazing, and collecting water or firewood for fuel in the face of climate change onslaught makes it even more complicated. Women in rural India do most of the back-breaking work in agriculture and are not recognized as farmers. More than ever, today, they continue to bear the brunt of climate-related health risks, environmental degradation, disasters, failure of crops, monsoons, breakdown of infrastructure and financial crisis.

While the Rural Employment Guarantee Act of 2005 is the first national law to recognise women’s unpaid farm/agriculture creating livelihood to construct ponds, wells, and soil conservation structures, this does not mean only women do these jobs.

Because there is visible remuneration for these works, men get employed and paid. Otherwise, these jobs have always been the responsibilities of women on the farms.

In India, even under the various rural employment opportunities, where women are the ones considered for community health work and child development services, their work is either voluntary, incentive-based, or underpaid.

Every time a woman steps out of the house to work, the question always asked is, “Who will do the household chores?” Unpaid domestic and care work is gendered, so the entire burden always falls on women.

Somewhere, these stereotypes of division of labour and worth of work endorse patriarchal notions that women are not proficient or capable enough to work outside the house and can have no priorities beyond the realms of household chores.

Related: Gender audit in Kerala

Break stereotyping of women’s work

It is as if women are being penalised for their gender. The stereotypical thinking in any section of Indian society, irrespective of class, religion, or caste, is for women to unequivocally take on these unpaid jobs without a thought to any benefit, pension, or health insurance that might come in a formal work structure.

The other penalties that women continue to bear and tolerate are domestic violence, dowry-harassment deaths, or usurping of property, as the lack of economic independence is also a major barrier to breaking the silence around such violations.

In Uruguay, the Care Law catalyses a policy change, ushering services and breaking the stereotypes, reconceptualising “care” as a collective and societal issue by positioning this matter as a human rights issue instead of a private family matter.

The state provides care services so that women can now get full-time paying jobs without risking the well-being of their children or elderly in their homes.

Though this still does not address the matter of women who may choose to stay at home, to do domestic chores or care for their children and elderly, women — to some extent — have options to go out for paid work.

Reports claim that annually, the work of 49 percent of women out of India’s 1.3 billion population is unaccounted for. Must it not be worrisome that 159.9 million women state that their main occupation is “household work” and are sidelined?

While the government harps about gender budgeting, has it not sorely failed to bring the unpaid work by girls and women under the purview of economic policy?

India has much to accomplish in reaching the sustainable development goals (SDGs), which recognize the importance of unpaid care and domestic work through public services, infrastructure, social protection policies, and shared responsibility within the household.

Women perform unpaid work, subsidise the market, and reduce the state’s burden. Yet, women’s work is neither recognized, reported, nor constantly underestimated by the family, market and state, regardless of the benefits relished by all these institutions.

The other aspect to mention here is the neo-liberal macroeconomic policies that have been formulated do not recognize the need to reduce or redistribute unpaid work in the economy, which only increases the penalty on women, which undoubtedly has an adverse impact on economic development.

Also read: Enabling gender equality

Gender bias and policy paralysis

The predominance of gender-biased views regarding women’s roles in the household, economy, society and political landscape of the country are the major impediments to changing the working status of women.

The women’s movement, in the Indian context, is much older than the modern feminism debate of gender equality. However, the inroads with religious and social equality shifted during the 1970s when women scholars began to question development from gender perspectives, intersectionality, and power inequality.

Presently, in our country, neither statutory institutions, social services, nor CSR activities manifest any work in the area of recognising or compensating women’s unpaid work. It is time that governments, corporate entities, and institutions start discussing and executing actions on how to tackle entrenched stereotypes to reduce the burden on girls and women.

Governments and revenue generators are responsible for passing policies that will reduce the burden and redistribute unpaid work through increasing paid jobs in the care economy, encouraging men to share domestic and care work, investing in systems and mechanisms to provide water, transportation, electricity, and allied essentials that reduce domestic labour, and addressing gender inequalities that force women to bear the impact of cultural battles.

The power of social sanctions that influence the indignity of gender discrimination must be challenged both at home and in the community.

Governments can no longer ignore the interconnectedness of women’s work. Over a lifetime, women experience the core of a “double burden” in unpaid work. Unpaid work imposes on women the costs of missed opportunities for education, skill acquisition or improvement, and public participation, reducing access to labour markets, reducing income-earning potential, and deepening persistent inequalities.

From a policy perspective, we urgently need to drive transformative change. This is also a compelling case for investing in free universal childcare services of high quality to reduce gender inequality in earnings and employment.

The implications of missed opportunities for the uptake of skills, education, socialisation, leisure, and entertainment also lead to reinstating the sexual division of labour, and these gender inequalities further create an intergenerational cycle of “unpaid work” for girls and women.

Related: Karnataka’s Shakti Scheme

Three Rs to respect women’s work

In India, unpaid domestic work is almost entirely dominated by women. For women to be able to demand any degree of parity in terms of time and energy, it must be seen as genuine work in light of the time poverty suffered by women and the emotional labour expended by women, not to mention the health tolls on them.

Recognition, then, becomes fundamental in the arena of gender justice.

One of the central processes in any form of empowerment is the recognition of women’s principal occupation as “genuine work” for the 159 million and more women in the country contributing to the welfare of the nation-state. How can the State claim to effect gender equality within the patriarchal household by only recognising men’s work?

Ultimately, whole communities and local governments need to be involved in providing care.

This will free up women to contribute more to the paid work economy, engage in voluntary and leisure activities, have more time for themselves, and safeguard their careers so that they compromise less and reduce the negative effect on their mental health and general well-being.

Like most societies, Indian communities, too, place a high premium on “families.” This must move us towards a more holistic understanding of labour and work that is not solely tied to the exchange value of service on the market.

The high, unpaid “cost of care” and the “shock absorbers” in families are extremely intimate forms of labour that keep the family intact and functional, essentially sustaining the economies and being recognised for their worth.

The components should be included as integral to a comprehensive macroeconomic framework that enables women’s paid work by engendering the macro-economic policy framework with the three Rs, “recognise, reduce, redistribute” unpaid work with men.

This will free women’s time to engage in productive activities, release women from the daily drudgeries and aid in the physical and mental health of women and their dignity, thus translating into fewer family conflicts and happier, fuller individual lives.

(Brinda Adige is a women’s rights activist. She works with urban and rural poor and women in the unorganised sector. Views are personal.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)