An old saying on the internet goes like this: "Women belong in the kitchen. Men belong in the kitchen. Everyone belongs in the kitchen. Because the kitchen is where all the food is."
Very Instagrammable, isn't it?
But in India (and most parts of the world), there is a massive gap in the distribution of domestic work between men and women – and it is deeply rooted in patriarchy. The backbreaking work put in by women at home – be it cooking, cleaning, caring for children and the elderly, working in farms or family-run businesses – is neither recognised, acknowledged, nor paid for.
However, in a significant ruling, the Madras High Court recently held that a wife who diligently maintains the home and cares for the family is deserving of a fair share in the property. It also recognised the indirect contribution made by the wife to the purchase of household assets.
"The contribution which wives make towards the acquisition of the family assets by performing their domestic chores, thereby releasing their husbands for gainful employment, would be a factor which, this Court would specifically take into account while deciding the right in the properties either the title stands in the name of the husband or wife and certainly, the spouse who looks after the home and cares for the family for decades, entitled to a share in the property," the court said, according to LiveLaw.
The judgment is important because women spend nearly 299 minutes doing unpaid housework every day, while men spend just 97 minutes, as per a National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) time-use survey published in 2020. Moreover, studies point out that 92 percent of women in the working age group (15 to 64 years) perform unpaid work daily, whereas only 27 percent of men do the same.
The lack of dignity and respect associated with 'homemaking' is another burden, though women who are counted as 'not working' actually contribute to the economy by doing housework.
In this article, The Quint explores how women can be seen as equal partners whose unpaid labour allows the household to earn a livelihood.
What if, hypothetically, homemakers were given a monthly salary for the work they do? How much would it be? Would it help them attain financial independence? Would it adequately recognise the work they do?
The Quint spoke to economists across India, and here's what they had to say.
Why Should Unpaid Work Be Recognised?
"We often see insurance companies refusing to pay if a woman dies in an accident, citing they are just housewives and don't contribute financially. If a man dies, they do the calculation based on the number of years remaining in service. This itself is so skewed," says Vibhuti Patel, an economics professor at Tata Institute of Social Science (TISS).
"Notionally, women's unpaid work needs to be recognised," she adds.
Ashwini Deshpande, economist and the founder-director of the Centre for Economic Data and Analysis (CEDA), adds:
"South Asia in general – India and Pakistan in particular – has among the most unequal divisions of domestic chores, where women spend as much as seven hours more compared to men. In India, this is the key social norm that hinders women's participation in the labour force. The lack of economic independence also lowers women's position within the household in terms of decision-making and mobility."
To make matters worse, the enormous weight of endless and repetitive housework leads working women to either drop out of paid employment altogether (or temporarily) or to seek part-time work, she adds.
"Women who manage to re-enter paid employment after a childcare break typically enter as juniors and earn less than men comparable to them in age, education, and qualifications. In other words, as a society, we want children, for which mothers pay a penalty, but not fathers," Deshpande says.
So, will a monthly homemaker's salary help?
First, Let's Do a Salary Breakdown
"One way to identify the salary of a homemaker is through the per capita income," says Amir Ullah Khan, a professional economist and professor.
"At a rudimentary level, one can say that the per capita income is Rs 1,90,000 per year (roughly Rs 15,000 per month). That is one simple number to work with. But there might also be criticism that it is too high!"
Per capita income is the average income earned by a person in a given area in a specified year.
"We can look at the minimum wage also. We have done sophisticated calculations of a minimum wage – and it takes care of the cost of living and other expenses. But will a minimum wage undervalue a homemaker's contribution?"Amir Ullah Khan, Economist
Khan says that a homemaker's salary can, therefore, be anywhere between the minimum wage and the per capita income – from Rs 5,000 to Rs 15,000. "But this is only a basic amount, without taking into consideration the opportunity cost," he adds.
So, what's an opportunity cost?
"Say, it is a woman doctor who has given up her job to provide unpaid labour at home. Doctors usually get paid upwards of Rs 82,000. So, you have to compensate for the opportunity losses as well," explains Khan.
"Simply put, the minimum wage and the average per capita income can be used to set up a minimum value. You then just put in a multiplier that measures the opportunity cost for a woman – whether she's a doctor, scientist, or a pilot," he adds.
And who should pay this salary?
Khan says that this salary should be paid by the state and not the 'breadwinner' of the household, who is usually a man.
"The moment it is sub-contracted, it becomes charity. Then, it becomes another tool of oppression. Care – caring for the child, caring for the old – is simply a public good. It is not a private good that benefits just the family," he reasons.
Should a homemaker's performance be monitored?
"Critics may either argue that a woman's contribution to a household is so invaluable that it cannot be reduced to a figure, or that it is too insignificant to be quantified," says Khan.
'How would we know if a woman is actually doing work?', 'What is her KRA (Key Result Areas)?' – these are some of the questions that may be raised when we propose a salary to a homemaker, he adds.
Key Result Areas are specific, measurable goals that companies or individual sets to track their progress and success. It is basically the monitoring of work done by an individual in a day.
"Should a homemaker's salary be dependent on the KRA? In the care world, there is no way you can measure KRA because everything you do is somehow related to the household. That's why I want to emphasise that care work is a public good, not a private good; we are doing it because we want society to be better off," he adds.
There is, however, a catch to providing salaries to homemakers.
"The acknowledgement of women's contribution is very important. But when you operationalise it, it is basically a gender-based division of labour," opines Vibhuti Patel.
"It further solidifies the fact that the public domain is for men and the private domain is for women," she adds.
Patel says that once homemakers are given a salary, there will also be pressure on women who are currently working to quit their jobs. "At the moment, there is a 19 percent workforce participation of women. Once homemakers are provided with a salary, families may put pressure on them to stay at home," she says.
Ashwini Deshpande concurs, saying that "the salary-for-homemakers proposal takes the 'male breadwinner' heteronormative family structure as a given."
"It completely solidifies the boundaries and divisions that have kept women in the kitchen and/or taking care of the kids, and/or caring for the elderly, and/or maintaining the house, and/or being responsible for the nurture of family members," she adds.
Deshpande also points out that even women who work outside and earn a salary may have limited control over their hard-earned money.
"In this scenario, what would payment to women – most likely controlled by their husbands – for domestic chores result in? Very likely, it would make the shift to paid employment even more difficult than earlier," she adds.
The questions that need to be asked are whether a salary would improve the homemaker's bargaining power, contribute to her skill development, and be used for her own needs, the economists say.
Then What's the Way Forward?
Akshi Chawla, the associate editor at CEDA, says: "When it comes to household work, our real focus needs to be on redistribution of housework fairly among different members of any household."
"And we need a lot more conversation and focus on how we can get women access to paid work," she adds. "This is where our focus should be: how do we create opportunities that can enable more women to be part of the labour force? How do we create more jobs for women? How do we ensure they have access to paid work?"
And making paid work opportunities accessible is important, but it is also not enough.
"We also need to ensure that women are able to stay employed and that they don't drop out due to various push and pull factors. We need supportive policies and infrastructure at the workplace, and also at the community level (such as childcare support and safe public transport facilities that can help them commute without the fear of violence and harassment)," she explains.
And secondly, there should be efforts to fill the gender wage gap, she adds.
Vibhuti Patel, on the other hand, believes that though paid care work needs to be adequately compensated, it should not be on the basis of gender. "It is important to remunerate those who are doing care work adequately as per ILO (International Labour Organization) standards so that care work becomes a good opportunity for people to survive."
"It is also convenient for patriarchy to just pay salary to women. It's the easy way out. Getting women to enter the workforce is a more challenging task," she adds.
Whether women are given a monthly honorarium or not, the fact remains that their contribution to the economy should not go unnoticed. The Tamil Nadu government recently announced an honorarium to eligible women heads of a family, in a bid to recognise women's labour.
The NSSO's quantification of unpaid domestic labour is also a start. But all said and done, there is still a long way to go before a substantial number of Indian women attain financial independence and are given the dignity and respect they deserve.
(This article was originally published on 4 April 2022. It was republished from The Quint's archives after the Madras High Court's ruling on women's contribution to households.)