On 5 January 2021, a three-judge bench of the Supreme Court of India, while deciding on a motor accident case and determining the income of the non-earning victim — a homemaker — observed that the labour, services, and sacrifices of homemakers contribute in a very real way to the economic condition of the family, and the economy of the nation; regardless of the fact that it may have been traditionally excluded from economic analyses.
Hailing the decision as landmark, politicians Kamal Haasan and Shashi Tharoor have suggested that household work must be paid as a salaried profession with the state government paying a monthly grant to homemakers. This proposition has stirred a debate across the country’s social and political spectrum.
What Value Is Assigned To A Homemaker?
To ensure a sense of harmony, equilibrium and solidarity among the sexes the proponents seek to create a ‘social capital’ whereby a homemaker’s contribution within the household is considered ‘equal’ to a regular worker’s labor expended in the formal sector.
However, there are opponents like actor Kangana Ranaut who argue that the ‘gratuitous services rendered by a woman with true love and devotion to her husband and children’ cannot be equated with the services rendered by regular workers. Because a homemaker’s contribution to her family’s existence and well-being is ‘priceless’ and ‘invaluable’, it should not be computed in terms of money.
The question that is central to this debate is: what is the value that society allots to a homemaker’s economic worth? The purpose is to present a feminist perspective of this ethically compelling and economically sensible proposition of a Universal Basic Income (UBI) type ‘homemaker’s grant’.
Unequal Division Of Labour & Why House Work Is Not Recognised As ‘Work’ At All
Firstly, the division of labour between the sexes is such that all the work in the domestic sphere has been allocated to women whereas all formal work is exclusively reserved for men. According to the 2011 Census, nearly 159.85 million women in India stated that ‘household work’ was their main occupation, as compared to only 5.79 million men.
Secondly, women homemakers are not considered as independent individuals having agency, rather they operate as appendages to their husbands.
Indian feminist and social reformer Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay aptly noted that the stereotypical image of Indian women was of “domestic and social parasites living on their husbands and contributing nothing.”
Thirdly, the laborious tasks performed by homemakers round the clock are not recognised as ‘work’ at all.
Rather, their 24X7 365 days’ engagement in the domestic sphere is conveniently categorised as the inherent ‘duty’ of a loving, nourishing and caring wife and mother. The Report of the Union Ministry of Statistics and Programme Implementation, titled ‘Time Use in India’ (2019) found that in a day, on an average, women spend nearly 299 minutes a day on unpaid domestic services for household members versus 97 minutes spent by men. Also, women on average spend 134 minutes on unpaid care giving services for household members as compared to the 76 minutes spent by men.
Fourth, a lower value is attached to the products made and services rendered by homemakers because they are not sold in the open market but consumed within the family.
As such, the 2011 Census categorised about 367 million Indian women who were engaged in household duties as ‘non-workers’ and equated them with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners who are not engaged in economically ‘productive’ work.
Consequently, the non-monetary and non-competitive nature of household work has actually lowered the status of homemakers in the Indian society.
A Case For ‘Homemaker’s Grant’
No doubt a homemaker’s contribution to a family’s existence and well-being is ‘priceless’. However, it is certainly not ‘valueless’.
Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay observed: “to state blandly that woman produces children and rears them, cooks food, cleans, washes, is not enough…the housewife is as much of a working woman as a factory worker. She expends more energy and time and skill in the production of commodities than the unionised, legally protected worker, for her hours are unlimited and her tools countless.”
Amartya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s ‘Capabilities Approach’ enunciates that a human life which is devoid of essential values like a decent standard of living, bodily health, bodily integrity, affiliation, play et cetera is not a life worthy of human dignity.
This approach focuses on actual human lives and can be used to determine what a Universal Basic Income (UBI) type ‘grant’ could do to expand the homemakers’ substantive freedoms and capabilities.
In all likelihood, with a regular cash grant at her disposal, a homemaker would ‘be able to be and to do’ what she values ‘being and doing’. This is the minimum level of social entitlement that a just society should distribute among its homemakers. The government would ultimately leave it to the homemaker to decide how she wants to use it.
Such a grant could alleviate many families out of poverty which have a male as the sole earning member and who might have lost his job, particularly amidst the pandemic.
Further, women are known for being intelligent, efficient and fair in planning out monthly family budgets and allocating resources among the members.
Benefits Of A Grant For Homemakers
Undoubtedly, some homemaker’s would put the ‘social dividend’ to their personal use or for their children’s consumption which many would term as ‘wasteful expenditure’. However, to a great extent, it would free women from the continuous cycle of dependency on the male members of the family, empower them and reinforce their individuality, agency and voice.
Whilst some women would consider the grant as a ‘launchpad’ to start a small business from saving and investing in an asset like a sewing machine to make and sell clothes. Still others may consider the sum of money as a ‘cushion’ to address future contingencies.
The homemaker’s grant would enable women to dictate terms and catalyse behavioural changes among the wayward habits of men like consuming alcohol and gambling.
Belgian political philosopher Philippe Van Parijs has reasoned that a UBI type grant is bound to benefit women because it offers ‘financial protection’ to those who want to liberate themselves from the ‘tyranny of husbands’ and abusive relationships.
Similar findings were resonated in a series of pilot studies conducted by Self- Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), Ahmedabad in 2009 when it directly transferred cash into the bank accounts of the eldest women members belonging to families under study. The homemaker’s grant would not just expand the women’s material freedoms but make a huge difference to their overall position and role within the family and society.
In unequivocal terms Kamaladevi proclaimed: “for it is time society realised that every housewife supports herself though she may not scratch at a desk or run a machine, by the social labour she performs and the contribution she makes towards the maintenance of the home and its happiness.”
Ironically, it has taken men like Haasan, Tharoor and the three Supreme Court judges to rekindle the dialogue on UBI for homemakers.
(Prerna Dhoop is a human rights lawyer based in Kolkata and Vandana Dhoop is an independent research consultant. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)