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Work and Women

How do we visualize woman’s work? Don’t we, inevitably, see a woman wiping away the sweat from her forehead while bent over a pan cooking dinner for her family, or a woman trying to feed a toddler, with the grandmother in the background providing the necessary distraction so the child opens her mouth? Now imagine a man at work. It is always someone “on the job” –in an office, at a construction site or on a tractor – neverin a kitchenor with a child!We have given work a “gender”!

It is social conditioning at work and we see it all around us. For most of us in India, the perception is that our fathers work and our mothers do not; the mothers merely raise children, look after the sick and elderly, and manage home and hearth. In other words, the man is the bread winner, an economic citizen, contributing to the nation through his ‘economic work’, while his dependent wife is working within the four walls of home, without being paid and, therefore, doing ‘uneconomic work’.

We have been able to create a world where there is the home and there is the economy and both exist as if in oblivion of one another. One cooks and cleans while the other labours for a wage. Can one survive without the other? No they can’t. The worker cannot work the next day if he has not slept or is not well fed. On the other hand, the home is where the past, present and future workforce is nurtured by a woman, who does not have the facility to clock off time, and who infinitely stretches herself weaving housework and paid work so that the family’s needs are taken care of.

During a workshop on “Women, Work and Care”, organized by the Alliance for Right to ECD this year, in Rajasthan, we requested the participants to map their activities from morning to night. The group consisted of farmers who had little land, so had to work on other’s land or work as casual labourers. Interestingly, men identified themselves as “farmers”; the women did not! Men had fixed time to rest, women considered four to six hours of rest in a day quite adequate. Women got up at four to bathe, cook, take care of the animals, fetch water (which took 3-4 hours), fetch firewood, take care of children, help neighbours and relatives, and so on. During the harvesting season the day was 19 hours long. What housework did men do? They took the family to the doctor, or helped the woman in case she was sick or very busy. Men’s days were also long, 10-12 hours on an average. But they perceived their work as “important” (badakaam) and the women’s work as “chhotakaam”! So, any decision on how the money will be spent rested with men.

Let us now stepover the threshold and step out of the yard, to have a look at the woman’s place in the job market. The perception of what is “woman’s work” transcends the lakshmanrekha :Occupations like cooks, maids, teachers, personal secretaries, flight attendants and care givers are disproportionately represented by women. We find the labour market segregated and there is sexual division of work in “jobs” too! Educated women mostly end up in the service sector and in jobs that are considered “feminine”. There will be more women in HR, for instance, as compared to Marketing or Finance. Cheryl Sandberg, COO Facebook, says in her book, ‘Lean In’, that women ‘opt out’ and narrow their choice set well before they need to, by choosing subjects in college and professions in early adult life that will be ‘less demanding’. The ‘glass ceiling’ stays intact. At the other end of the economic spectrum, the least paid workforce segment is mostly women, by virtue of low literacy and skill levels, along with the worldwide phenomenon of how women continue to be paid less than men for the same work.

Women are not only engaged in a vast diversity of roles and tasks but work in ways that often render them “invisible” as workers. They work on contract for varying periods, or on piece rates, or get casual labour only on certain days, and, hence, are often counted as part-time or marginal workers. Similarly, “unpaid family labour” relates to those who participate in the family enterprise (agriculture, dairying, fisheries, craft, trade, or vending and numerous other activities)but whose contributions are not separately accounted for or calculated. Again, women who are described as “engaged in domestic duties” do include activities like gathering and processing economic resources for the family such as water, food and fuel, all of which constitute productive labour but are not recognized as such and their value not calculated.

Rigid gender roles, discrimination, limitations on women’s mobility coupled with the lack of basic infrastructure including crèches have continued to confine women to unpaid and underpaid work. According to a 2013 World Bank study, only 27% of the female population aged over 15 are considered “working” in India. This is the lowest rate of women's participation in any workforce among the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) countries. However, the feminists argue that this number is flawed as women carrying out economic activities do not necessarily have an employer or a workplace.

The discriminations are many and amply reflected in the numbers:33% of Indian women are married off before 18, 6 out of 10 girls drop out before they finish Class 8, and one in every two women is anaemeic. The Blog post on ‘U’– Undernourished, Under-weight, Under-age – talks about this deprivation. She is not contributing to the economy (GDPs don’t count housework), so policies on social security like health, maternity entitlements, etc. do not take her requirements into account. She is only a secondary earner so no equal wage or skill-based training for her.After taking care of the family at every stage of life as a daughter, mother, aunt, grandmother, she cannot think of a “pension” from the State to live a dignified life in old age. The family, employer, market, and State view her as a “dependent” all through,which, is reflected infamily hierarchies, the job market and State policies.

Women’s work is a complex fabric! It is a continuum where economic and non-economic activities overlap. The days start and finish keeping the family priorities in mind where the woman is the planner, manager and the worker. Is it the woman’s responsibility to run the home? Culturally so. But human beings, presumably a rational species, will agree that the world may go on without this sexual division of work. Men, women, State, market can all share the workload. But for that we require a new lens to look at work - culturally, socially and economically.


Who Cares (a film by IDS with voice over in Hindi)

Unpaid Work and the Economy: Linkages and Their Implications by Indira Hirway -

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