“My wife does nothing at all,” dismissed Najibul Sheikh, 29, a farmer and welder in Murshidabad, West Bengal, even as he nonchalantly listed that she cooks for them, drops and picks up the children from school, gets water from the nearby hand pump. “But what work is there in the house?” he said, echoing the thankless attitude of many families of India’s nearly 16 crore “homemakers”.

Election promises in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, West Bengal and Assam are trying to make this invisible, unpaid domestic and care work more visible by providing cash incentives to “homemakers”. If implemented as a payment for women’s unpaid work, they could well become the first such programme in the world even as there is no evidence that such policies change gender stereotypes.

Some researchers, economists and women’s groups told IndiaSpend that the policy might further entrench existing gender norms that confine women to the house. The policy could also reduce the gender gap in the labour force (as women are paid for work within the house) without more women actually participating in paid work outside the house.

“It is a very well-intentioned policy but it misses the point,” said Ashwini Deshpande, an economist and professor at Ashoka University. Deshpande and some other economists agree that women’s unpaid labour needs to be recognised but believe such a policy would entrench existing gender norms, provide an excuse to families who do not want women to work outside the home and worsen India’s already low female labour force participation. They instead advocate for programmes that encourage men and women to share the housework, policies providing support to women to access jobs, safe workplaces and access to childcare.

Others, such as Prabha Kotiswaran, a professor of law and justice at King’s College London, say that such policies should be implemented along with a government-sponsored wage for housework. At the current rate of change – the average gender gap between the time men and women spent on unpaid work in 72 countries reduced by seven minutes between 1997 and 2012 – it would take 210 years for housework to be shared equally, she said at a recent discussion on paying women for housework. “Should women wait until then?” she asked.

Economists also point out the problems in accurately calculating the worth of a woman’s unpaid work and whether the governments can afford such a programme and its sustainability as political parties in power change.

One other issue is that unless the government creates awareness that the programme is for compensating women for the housework they do, it is likely to be seen as just a cash transfer to help families. “I would use it for my children’s schooling,” Nargis, Sheikh’s wife, said as she prepared tea for her husband and two children.

If any government or political party gives money, of course, we will take it, said Sheikh, not comprehending that the money would be given because of the efforts his wife puts in at home. “Prices are going up, [cooking] gas cylinders, which we received for free under the Ujjwala scheme, are now Rs 930 and our income is not going up. Whatever money we get will be useful.” India’s most recent poverty line was estimated at Rs 972 per month per person in rural areas and Rs 1,407 per month per person in urban areas.

Yet, whether or not such programmes further the goal of gender parity, such policies could be popular with the female electorate that formed 48.3% of the voters in West Bengal, 50.4% in Tamil Nadu, 51.8% in Kerala and 48.3% in Assam in 2016.

Unrecognised unpaid labour

Every day, women and girls aged six years and above spend over seven hours, on average, on domestic and caregiving work compared to about three hours that men spend on these activities, found the latest India Time Use Survey in 2019, which asked people to recall how they spent the last 24 hours.

Less than one-third of men (28% in rural and 23% in urban areas) participated in domestic work, compared to over three-fourths of women (82% in urban and 80% in urban areas), the survey found.

“Because women do most of the domestic chores, wheels of the economy function and children can get an education,” said Deshpande, adding, “Yet they are not respected. It’s an unrecognised form of labour.”

Globally, women, 15 years and above, spend 12.5 billion hours every day on unpaid care work, amounting to at least $10.8 trillion annually, an Oxfam report from January 2020 estimated.

“Other than the physical act of giving birth and breastfeeding, there is nothing else that a woman does that a man cannot do,” said Deshpande. She gave the example of chefs, landscape artistes and tailors, most of whom are men, even though cooking, gardening and stitching inside the house is seen as a woman’s domain. “The minute it gets monetised, it becomes a man’s work.”

India, in its calculation of the gross domestic product, underestimates women’s contribution to the economy by not measuring fully their contribution to family enterprises or their work in helping male members of the family, said Soumya Kapoor Mehta, the head of the Initiative for What Works to Advance Women and Girls in the Economy, a gender research and advocacy organisation. For instance, a woman who weaves baskets that the husband sells in the market is often not recorded as a worker in national surveys. This problem can be resolved by measuring women’s contribution more accurately, Kapoor Mehta said.

This is different from women’s unpaid work in the household, such as cleaning and cooking, that is considered work but not considered in a country’s national accounts and, thus, not given any value. It is for recognising and valuing this work that Selma James, an American social activist, began the Wages for Housework campaign in 1972.

“Remuneration for caring work is a way of positing our need to have a caring society where all of us are caring for all of us to the degree that we are physically and socially able to do it,” James said at a recent discussion on wages for housework.

Valuing unpaid labour

No state currently provides a financial benefit compensating women for housework. In Kerala, a group of women had formed a collective to demand at least minimum wages for domestic chores, reported the Hindustan Times in May 2009.

In 2012, Women and Child Development Minister Krishna Tirath had said that a mechanism be devised to quantify and calculate the value of work that women do for their families and suggested that men give a portion of their income to their wives based on this value, reported the Press Trust of India. The government did not take this proposal forward.

A year later, in 2013, the Kerala high court rejected a petition by the Wayanad-based organisation Women’s Voice, for providing a minimum wage to homemakers. The judge said that the supporting evidence from the petitioner pertained to cases of compensation in case of motor vehicle accidents.

“We are also of the opinion that to put a price tag for the work of mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and so on and so forth is an affront to womanhood and an insult to motherhood,” the judge ruled.

Representational image. Photo credit: Amit Dave/Reuters

Some states provide a cash benefit transfer for women but link it to supporting women in taking care of the house rather than a wage for housework. For instance, Goa has a scheme called Griha Aadhar, under which the state provides Rs 1,500 monthly to low-income families to “address the problem of spiraling prices and to provide support to the ‘homemakers’ from middle, lower-middle and poor section of the society, to maintain a reasonable standard of living for their families”. Similarly, since October 2020, Assam’s Orunodoi scheme provides women in 17 lakh families Rs 830 per month for health and food expenses.

It is very hard to put a monetary value on housework and it is pointless to say how much each “homemaker’s” work would be worth, Kotiswaran, who has studied around 200 cases on how Indian courts calculated compensation for women in road accidents, told IndiaSpend. These amounts ranged from Rs 1,200 a month to Rs 4,500, which courts calculated based on a number of factors including minimum wages in the state, the woman’s level of skill-based on education and qualification, and so on. A sum of Rs 1,000 or Rs 1,500 [as proposed by political parties] is low, but for working-class women, these amounts are not nothing, she said.

“The payment will never be enough for the amazing amount of time that goes in,” countered Deshpande. “You cannot account for the monotony and drudgery of it. It is a thankless job. You [women] work the whole day and still get beaten for a burned vegetable.”

As many as 42% of women who failed to fetch water or firewood and 41% of women who failed to prepare meals for males in the family were physically beaten, found a 2019 survey by Oxfam across Bihar, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh and Chhattisgarh. Many respondents also said it was acceptable to beat a woman if they failed at child care (33%) and if they failed to care for a dependent or ill adult member of the family (36%). The payment for housework is unlikely to change such gender beliefs, said Deshpande.

Labour force participation

If women’s household work is given a notional value, the country’s GDP could increase infinitely, without any change on the ground, Deshpande said. Further, this would make the gender gap in labour market participation disappear as it would lend credence to the idea that some people (mostly women) work within the house and some outside, she explained.

India’s female labour force participation is very low. In 2018-19, 24.5% of women, 15 years and above, were part of the labour force – which means they are either employed or looking for work – as compared to 75.5% of men, according to the government’s Periodic Labour Force Survey.

This is an increase from 23.3% of women in the labour force in 2017-’18, data show. But the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened women’s labour force participation with 13% fewer women than a year ago employed or looking for jobs, compared to 2% fewer men, data from November 2020 show.

“The point is that there are activities that get counted as productive activities, not just in national statistics,” Deshpande said. “These are activities that give us joy, are compatible with our personalities, allow us to think, create, find happiness and companionship. There is a domestic sphere and the public sphere and all adult individuals have the capability to do [activities pertaining to] either and it should be their choice.”

The freedom to choose between the public or domestic sphere or to do both is something this policy will not impact, she said.

Even when women earn outside of the home, they have little control over their earning and have to hand it over to the husband or mother-in-law, Deshpande said. If the government pays the woman for housework, there is a chance that families will say that “you are already getting paid, then why go out and work”, she said.

Further, policies to change the gender status quo can often have unintended impacts as a patriarchal society pushes against such changes, we had reported in March. Therefore, payments for housework should be implemented along with awareness programmes and a charter of rights for women, Kotiswaran suggested, to reduce any unintended impacts of this policy.

India’s female labour force participation is very low. Photo credit: Mansi Thapliyal/Reuters

How to implement it?

During the Covid-19 pandemic, the government provided a cash incentive of Rs 500 to women to help with expenses. This transfer was possible because 53% of women across India had access to bank accounts that they personally used in 2015-’16, as compared to 15% in 2005-’06. This change happened in part because of accounts opened under Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana, which provides a no-balance account to those who were previously unbanked.

An amount of Rs 3,000 a month paid by the government into women’s bank accounts could be feasible as a starting point for such a programme, said Kotiswaran. This amount was decided as compensation in a case from 2001 and has been used for decisions in other cases too, she explained.

A state-sponsored programme could provide a fixed basic amount that would be targeted at poor women while a universal payment to all women would be fiscally difficult, said Kapoor Mehta. But the key would be “good policymaking”, with careful advocacy and planning, she cautioned. The better policy would be to pay women as well as men for housework but such a policy would be hard to design (for instance, how would the government confirm who actually does the housework?) and to implement (for instance, data show that men, on average, spend about two hours on housework –would that be compensated?), she acknowledged.

Alternative policies

It could make for better policy to flip the argument, and enact policies to reduce women’s burden rather than pay women for housework, suggested Kapoor Mehta. She gave the example of the Ujjwala Yojana, under which each household was provided one cooking gas cylinder, which reduces the time spent on collecting firewood and on cooking. Similarly, accessible, good childcare centres would reduce the care burden on mothers.

Women don’t benefit as much from cash transfers, for which spending decisions are likely to be made by the men in the house, said Kuljit Kaur, secretary general of the All India Women’s Conference, a non-governmental organisation that works on women’s and children’s rights. She instead suggested in-kind transfers such as washing machines, which reduce labour, and subsidised transport that increases mobility.

Indira Hirway, director of the Ahmedabad-based Center for Development Economics, suggested incentives for men for sharing housework, such as financial incentives, and mandatory training of men in housework and childcare, in an article published in The Hindu in March 2020.

If the emphasis is on paying women for work, governments should “start recognising them as workers for the unpaid work they do as farmers or artisans”, said Deshpande. She also suggested policies for workplace equality and government messaging to “share the load” of housework.

“It isn’t an either/or situation,” said Kotiswaran. Wages for housework should be implemented along with these other policies, she said. Paying a small amount to women to recognise their unpaid care work is a “beginning” in talking about these issues, she said, noting that political parties are talking about it because they think it has resonance with the electorate. “It opens up a dialogue around these questions.”

Programmes worldwide

Other countries have tried programmes to reduce the burden of housework. In Belgium, a government programme which began in 2004 provided vouchers to people to hire a registered agency for doing housework. The programme would formalise the provision of domestic services as well as reduce household work for families. Finland, Sweden and Denmark provided tax breaks for those who chose to hire registered domestic workers and companies for household work.

Other than in Sweden, the emphasis of these policies was on formalising domestic work rather than helping women who disproportionately shoulder the responsibility of household work, an analysis of the discussions on these policies said.

In Sweden, such a tax break was considered regressive as it would cement gender roles by shifting work of higher-income households to lower-income women. Inequality in the homes should be solved by men taking more responsibility, not through buying their way out through a subvention, one statement on this policy said.

The Bolivarian constitution recognises housework as an activity that has economic and social value. Under the 2006 programme Misión Madres del Barrio, an anti-poverty programme targeted at women, the government provides permanent social security for mothers.

Priyanka Gulati, a media undergraduate and an intern with IndiaSpend, contributed to this story.

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