When her black feature-phone buzzed with news of a pregnant woman going into labour, Damsari Ozre rushed to finish as much housework as she could before leaving to attend to the birth.

The 29-year-old is an ASHA (accredited social health activist – a community health worker under the National Rural Health Mission) in Velgaon, a village in Palghar tehsil, Thane district, 95 km from Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

Ozre is used to spending four to five hours a day at work, away from home, but this can go to up to 24 hours when there is a baby on the way. In addition, she must wake up at daybreak to fetch water for her family, cook and clean for them, and work as a hired farm-hand during planting and harvest seasons.

Often, the precarious balancing act of managing household chores and the responsibilities of her government health job leave her feeling drained. “It often feels like I still have work left over at the end of the day, but especially so if I get called to help with a delivery,” she told IndiaSpend one recent March afternoon. “Whenever I leave housework unfinished I don’t like it, I feel a lot of tension.”

Indian women like Ozre do the most unpaid care and domestic work of any country globally, except Kazakhstan – a country with 94% lower gross domestic product than India ($163 billion versus India’s $2.6 trillion). It reveals that India is not investing enough in social care and “leaving its female population to carry the burden”, said Diya Dutta, a researcher at Oxfam India and author of a forthcoming Oxfam report, Mind the Gap, to be released on March 28, 2019.

This is the first in a five-part series on how structural inequalities, especially gender disparities, affect lives and society, based on our reporting and Oxfam India’s second India Inequality Report, Mind the Gap.

The burden of unpaid work falls disproportionately on women in India because tasks such as cooking, cleaning, fetching water and firewood are highly gendered, and patriarchal norms dictate that women also perform care work, validate men’s failure to assume domestic responsibilities and thus entrench women’s unequal social status, the report says.

Women in India currently spend upto 352 minutes per day on domestic work, 577% more than men (52 minutes) and at least 40% more than women in South Africa and China (the other two BRICS countries for which data are available), according to Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development data.

No way out

Up at 5 am, a couple of hours before her husband and three children surface, Ozre’s daily routine features the repeated drudgery that many women in rural India have to contend with due to the lack of basic infrastructure.

Lugging metal pitchers to the village hand-pump, she spends an hour collecting water each morning, only to return later in the day, spending a total of three hours on this one task. It is her least favourite job. “Although I don’t like it, I have to do it,” she said. “The kids need to be bathed. It’s not like we can go without water.”

In July and August, when the monsoon arrives and the arid landscape dotted with bristling cacti transforms into a green, fertile plain, Damsari will also take up planting work in the neighbouring rice fields. It is tiring work, she said, “the kind that makes my hips and legs ache from all the standing and crouching”. But the additional income cannot be foregone.

Her duties at the ASHA centre continue, as do the chores waiting for her on her return from the fields. It is the number of hours in the day which must be flexible, stretched to accommodate as much as possible.

Source: Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)

Indian women’s unpaid work plays a crucial role in sustaining economic activity, equivalent to 3.1% of GDP. However, much of the contribution goes unrecognised or is incorrectly measured, amounting to a “systemic transfer of hidden subsidies to the economy”, the report said.

India’s last “Time Use Survey” was conducted in 1998-’99, and there has been no similar exercise since. Fixing this will be the first step in understanding the issue of women’s unpaid work and correctly addressing it, said Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at the Centre for Economic Studies and Planning at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi.

“The whole point of unpaid labour is that you want to recognise it, reduce it and redistribute it,” Ghosh said. “A Time Use Survey would tell us where men and women spend their time, in which kinds of paid activities and what kinds of unpaid activities. So far the government has been unwilling to do that, but I hope at some point public pressure will make it happen.”

The National Sample Survey Office survey is inadequate because it does not take into account women’s double burden of cooking, cleaning and other domestic duties, Ghosh said. “It just asks about your ‘principal activity,” she added.

Poorest suffer most from ‘time poverty’

For poor, marginalised women, the effects of shouldering the bulk of domestic responsibilities are even more acute, said Dutta. “In poor urban and rural households there’s no question of hiring anyone to do your domestic work, many of them are staying awake between 17-19 hours a day to complete their tasks.”

Women in low-income households are also more driven to find paid work than women in higher income households where not working can be a marker of social status, as per the report. Combining paid work commitments with a mountain of menial, domestic labour at home means poor women are more likely to suffer from ‘time poverty’. This is understood as experiencing such acute time pressure – anxiety that there is little freedom to choose how to allocate one’s time, with little or no room for leisure.

Time poverty fundamentally undermines women’s human rights since it undermines women’s agency and ability to make choices, as per the Oxfam report. The immense burden of work therefore prevents women from pursuing further education, employment opportunities, raising their skill-level and tending to their own well-being.

When asked what she would do if she had more free time to herself, Sunandhan Bhoir, 45, grinned sheepishly, took a while to reflect, and said: “I’d sleep, of course!”

Bhoir and her family are subsistence farmers, cultivating rice on a small plot of land in Damkhind, a village in Palghar tehsil of Thane district in Maharashtra. When she was pregnant, she recalled, her daily routine did not change and she was back on the farm just over a week after giving birth. If she is not around to do them, she knows the domestic tasks will not get done. “If I’m ill I just take myself to the hospital, buy the medicine, and get back to work,” she said.

Sunandhan Bhoir, 45, bears the brunt of domestic duties at home. She knows if she does not perform the housework, it will not get done. “If I’m ill, then I just take myself to the hospital, buy the medicine and get back to work,” she says. Photo credit: Tish Sanghera/IndiaSpend

Sunandhan Bhoir, 45, bears the brunt of domestic duties at home. She knows if she does not perform the housework, it will not get done. “If I’m ill, then I just take myself to the hospital, buy the medicine and get back to work,” she says.

Up to 64% of women said they have no choice taking up care work, since there is “no other member to carry out the domestic duties”, the 68th round of the NSSO survey found.

Bhoir’s experiences reveal how the burden of unpaid work impacts women’s health – domestic chores are often prioritised above personal wellbeing. Cash benefit transfers under the Pradhan Mantri Matritva Vandana Yojana (Maternity Benefit Programme, formerly the Indira Gandhi Matritva Sahyog Yojana), for example, have not meant more rest for pregnant women because they were found doing agricultural work until the time of delivery.

Women also spend eight hours less on activities such as learning, social and cultural activities according to a pilot time-use survey conducted by the Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation between 1988 and 1999. This meant that the burden of unpaid work not only impacts a woman’s family and community relations but also her ability to play an effective role outside home, in turn perpetuating the gender skew.

Unpaid work keeps women out of jobs, disempowered

When asked if she would be interested in a paid job, Bhoir’s reply was clear: “There’s no time, who would do the work at home?” While extra income would be welcome, the long list of chores at home would not allow her to take up a job.

Despite a period of rapid economic growth following market liberalisation in the early 1990s, many women like Bhoir have not traded domestic work for new employment opportunities. Between 2003 and 2013, the number of women at work fell by almost 14 percentage points, from 34.8% to 27%.

A mismatch in the jobs available for women and their skills, an inherent gender bias in labour, as well as social norms which restrict the suitability of certain jobs for women, are some of the factors driving this trend, IndiaSpend reported in August 2017.

The immense burden of unpaid work that will remain at the end of a working day is another “major deterrent” for women to participate in, or rejoin the workforce, says the Oxfam report – and is one that is increasing.

The proportion of women aged over 15 and in rural areas who spend the majority of their time in domestic duties has increased from 51% in 2004-’05 to 60% in 2011-’12, the year the last NSSO employment survey was released.

“When you’re spending up to six hours each day fetching water, how can you be expected to go out to look for work, too?” said Ghosh. “There’s a real crisis of infrastructure and amenities that is translating into more unpaid work for women. It’s a supply-side problem which urgently needs to be addressed.”

A woman in Velgaon village, Palghar tehsil, Thane district, leaves home to collect water from the nearest well. Without piped water supply, many women spend multiple hours a day collecting and ferrying water to their homes in this village, just 95 km from Mumbai, India’s thriving financial hub. Photo credit: Tish Sanghera/IndiaSpend

This lack of public-sector provisions – such as basic infrastructure, elderly care homes and childcare facilities – and affordable private-sector services, means that women are being increasingly left to shoulder the care and domestic work burden, forcing them out of the workforce. This can create a vicious cycle of disempowerment, said Ghosh.

When asked by researchers if they felt their unpaid work burden had increased over five years, a significant proportion of women participating in Oxfam’s qualitative survey of 1,000 households across Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh said yes. One common reason they cited was that families are becoming smaller.

The average family size in India is shrinking, the report states – in 2001, each family on average had 4.67 members, down to 4.45 in 2011. In rural India, the proportion of nuclear families, where each sibling sets up a household of their own has increased. In 2001, 83.9% of families were nuclear, which rose to 84.5% in 2011.

Fewer adult women at home means fewer hands to help with domestic work. And as more girls stay in school longer (a positive impact of the Right To Education Act 2009) and spend more time outside of the home, adult women end up having to take on more domestic work.

No more than 49% of girls were enrolled in secondary education in 2005, compared to 74% in 2016. Boys’ secondary-school enrollment increased at a similar rate (24 percentage points) over the same period, but an inherent gender bias means their help with domestic duties is not expected.

“The fact that women don’t have an income gives them less agency, less decision-making power within the household and ultimately less mobility,” Ghosh said, adding that women undertaking too much unpaid work also means the work they do in the paid market becomes devalued. “Society assumes the work they do is less significant and so the occupations that women are crowded into get badly paid,” she said. “There’s a wage penalty imposed on those that do the unpaid work.”

The wage penalty is so evident in India that “we are at the point where even the government and the public sector don’t pay women properly”, Ghosh said. She cited the example of Anganwadi and ASHA workers, professions dominated by women, that do not even command minimum wage. Instead, these government workers, who form the backbone of the public health system, are paid Rs 2,250-Rs 4,400 depending on their role and miss out on pension, maternity, holiday and other benefits.

Need for women-friendly policies

In households with access to the government’s National Rural Drinking Water Programme, women spent on average 22 minutes less per day on care work and 60 minutes per day more on paid work, the Oxfam report finds. The results for households that had begun using LPG gas cylinders for cooking under the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana programme were similar – 49 minutes less spent on care work and an hour more on paid work.

Such results highlight how the provision of basic infrastructure to communities can have significant benefits for women in terms of time-use allocation. However, these programmes require adequate long-term investment and effective management to ensure success, both elements lacking in the two schemes, critics pointed out.

For example, despite spending 90% of available funds, just 18% of the rural population was connected to piped water supply between 2012 and 2017, against a target of 35%. Poor execution of projects left them “incomplete, abandoned or non-operational”, a key failure of the National Rural Drinking Water Programme scheme, as per this 2018 report from the Comptroller and Auditor General, the government’s auditor.

Expensive cylinder refill costs are affecting Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, a scheme that Ghosh believes was “potentially very effective”. Up to 40% of households in Chattisgarh had never refilled their cylinder, followed by 17% in Madhya Pradesh, citing costs, according to a 2018 study by MicroSave, a consulting firm. Policymakers have so far failed to address how households will overcome the affordability barrier, with refills priced anywhere between Rs 700 and Rs 800, a significant portion of a poor household’s income. Prices can also fluctuate according to international fuel markets, meaning planning for this expenditure can be difficult.

“Most households can’t afford to keep buying gas cylinders after the first free one,” said Ghosh, “So basically the cylinder sits there, in pride of place, only to be used on a special occasion. The rest of the time they’re back to using firewood.”

Need for equitable social norms

Up to 48% of women currently stop working within four months after returning from maternity leave, while up to 50% more men are working between the ages of 15-24 and 25-34, the child-rearing period, found a study by Intellecap, an investor in social enterprises. Greater attention paid to childcare and maternity leave policies could help restrict the effects of a “motherhood penalty” which entails women dropping out of work, worrying about being absent from work for a long time and accepting less-satisfactory employment, as IndiaSpend reported in August 2018.

While private-sector provision for childcare is expected to grow at over 23% annually between 2017 and 2022, and the Maternity Benefit Act 2017 mandates employers with over 50 staff to provide crèches, options for the poorest in society remain limited.

Workers under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme are entitled to free onsite childcare provided by their employers, but in reality this is not enforced and many go without. Severe funding cuts to the centrally sponsored National Crèche Scheme meant that 8,143 crèches closed between 2013-’14 and 2016-’17, hitting those with no way of affording private alternatives the hardest, IndiaSpend reported in January.

Damsari Ozre, 29, with her two daughters outside their home. There is no crèche available near Ozre’s village so she often ends up taking her youngest to work with her, which can affect her concentration at work, she tells IndiaSpend. Photo credit: Tish Sanghera/IndiaSpend

Addressing the issue of childcare and flexible work could also help initiate positive social norms that “encourage the redistribution of unpaid care and domestic work burden”, the Oxfam report says. If more children saw both parents going out to work, this could help change established social norms that say a woman’s role is purely a domestic one.

Existing patriarchal norms “pose a significant constraint to the take-up of public or market services”, said Farzana Afridi, associate professor in the economics and planning unit at the Indian Statistical Institute, Delhi. In experiments providing childcare in Bangladeshi garment factories, for example, the use of crèches was low because of “the expectation is that it’s still the woman who should be doing this, coupled with worries about the quality of the service provided”.

This does not mean we should give up on public provision of facilities though, Afridi said, placing education and awareness about skewed gender attitudes at the core of a multi-pronged approach to tackle unequal labour division. “We often talk about how women need to be educated or emancipated but we don’t include men in any of this,” she said. “We used to have courses talking about civic duties, inculcating moral values in school curriculums but we have less of this now. It’s difficult, I know, but there should be experiments and changes to the curriculum to address this.”

This article first appeared on IndiaSpend, a data-driven and public-interest journalism non-profit.