July 22, 2020 8:18:03 pm
Domestic maintenance work and care, much of which are done largely by women within the confines of the home, have become the pillars of post-COVID life and coping strategies. Though central to the survival, well-being and flourishing of human beings, such work has historically been viewed with disdain. This is especially so in patriarchal societies like ours, in which they are overtly belittled, yet idealised and imposed as an integral part of “womanhood”. Never recognised, respected or rewarded, the household or society has cared the least for those who laboured long hours to provide care for others.
The inherent vulnerability of children and the elderly to the coronavirus, prolonged and varying iterations of the lockdown, long closures of schools/colleges, the recent resumption of online classes and the option of work from home, inter alia, are all critically dependent on the sustained availability of long hours of care-work at home. Without it, much of the coping measures would become recalcitrant and challenging, given the paucity of alternate providers at present. The unfounded panic and the exclusionary norms by resident welfare associations against the external, needy care-workers, cloaked under the guise of precautions, deter people from availing the services even if available. All of this has enhanced the centrality and value of care-work done by women within the home.
This enhanced visibility and value also imply a deepened dependence on and inequality in care-work. Globally, women and girls perform 75 per cent of unpaid care and domestic work. Though more than two decades old, the national-level time-use survey in 1998-99 revealed that women were responsible for about 91 per cent of unpaid care and domestic maintenance work in India. Women, on average, spent 25 hours per week in care work as opposed to about two hours per week by men. Estimates from a recent survey reinforce that women bear an unequal burden for unpaid care work. Women spent more than five hours per day as against 45 minutes per day by men in unpaid care work and household maintenance in India in 2004-05. What’s more, the increase in women’s care work tends to be accompanied by a consequent decline in the time available for them for leisure and personal care. The increased worth and visibility of care work, thus, goes in tandem with a decline in women’s immediate well-being.
The increased dependence on women to perform this burgeoning work has a long-term consequence as well. As argued by The Guardian columnist Moira Donegan, it has the potential to reverse the progress made by women due to their decades of unrelenting struggle for economic empowerment and “to get out of the house”. The COVID-19 pandemic contributes in more ways than one in bringing women back to the home — the “return of the 1950s housewife”, to use the term of sociologist Heejung Chunk. Some of the sectors which are hard-hit by COVID are the ones which employ women in large numbers, such as tourism, hospitality and retail. It is almost certain that these sectors are not going to resume their operations at a full scale any time soon. This implies substantial lay-offs of women workers and a contraction of women’s opportunities to have an independent source of income.
The measures pursued to offset the impacts of the pandemic also contribute to reinforcing this regressive phenomenon. For instance, the online education demands that mothers should be available uninterruptedly for long hours to help the children familiarise with the nuances and demands of online classes, assignments and assessments. Also, the onus of protecting the children and elderly from possible coronavirus infections and caring for home-quarantined members who are exposed to the virus falls heavily on women. The intensity of care work goes up substantially if male members of the household are provided with the option of working from home. By demanding disproportionate time and energy of women for care and domestic work, the pandemic has compelled them to confine themselves to their homes more than ever.
Pandemics create unforeseen disruptions and challenges and force us to resort to strategies or measures to offset their impacts which may create dependencies and disparities. However, such dependencies and disparities neither evolve naturally nor in a vacuum. They build on and exacerbate the prevalent hierarchies and inequalities. Intensive demand on care and domestic work by women during the present pandemic takes advantage of the patriarchal structure, which relegates care work largely to women in India. In multiple ways, COVID-19 has contributed to lowering women’s well-being and freedom, and to the regressive phenomenon of the housewife.
Jose is RBI Chair Professor, Council for Social Development, Southern Regional Centre, Hyderabad
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