Last two days as I worked from home, I had the pleasure to see my mother in action while she fed two monkey children (both her grandsons). To keep them from jumping around here and there, she told them a story. She was so engaging that my ears found it difficult to not be glued to what she was saying. Both children were transfixed in their place. Just before this, she had cooked the entire meal for the family. Hot, nourishing and healing food. Especially for me as I was down with fever.
This was just two hours of her life. Cooking, feeding, storytelling, caretaking. Now add to this, the hours she has spent in cleaning the house, looking after the guests who visit, cooking three proper meals a day for a joint family with varied tastes and nutritional requirements, buying groceries, planning on what to buy, doing laundry (even with washing machines someone has got to do it), raising children and now grandchildren (which is an entire set of multiple needs like lunch boxes, snack boxes, clothes, uniforms, books, homework, assignments, emotional needs and what not).
Multiply this with 40. That’s the number of years she has been doing this. And yet, if someone asks her if she has worked ever in her life, she says No. Let that sink in.
That is the value of domestic labour – the single most important foundation for every household across the world. If this crumbles, there is no economy. We can talk about nuclear power, stock markets, investments, oil, petroleum, energy resources and make it sound like they are far more important than this, but the truth is, they are not.
Imagine a worldwide strike of domestic labourers – if that is the term we wish to assign to them; then no matter who your Finance Minister is or how well your economy is doing, there is no way the country will grow.
According to National Sample Survey Organisation, around 64% of urban women are engaged in domestic work due to “personal choice” because they have no other alternative.
Having no other alternative can hardly be called a choice.
What can be done to give domestic labour the dignity it deserves?
- Quantify the amount of work that goes into domestic labour. Until we put a figure and a statistic to domestic labour, it will be denied its legitimate place in the society. Softening the blow by saying women do it out of love and duty to families is adding more burden to their shoulders.
- Ensuring that putting value to women’s work also comes with dignity. It does not mean that that is all a woman’s labour is worth but it should go a step further in determining where gaps can be filled with the help of unskilled labour so educated, qualified and interested women can go back to joining the workforce that they had quit due to these reasons.
- Once the contribution of domestic labour to GDP happens, steps need to be taken towards equal distribution of domestic labour between men and women. After Swachh Bharat, let’s call for Samaan Bharat (Equal India) campaign.
These steps do not just come under the umbrella of women’s rights. But also, under basic human rights. If we do not recognise the importance of unpaid labour that women do in India we are denying them these basic human rights – Right to Equality, Right to Freedom, Right Against Exploitation, Cultural & Educational Rights.
By creating a separate ministry for women and child development, the government has already relegated them to the margins by excluding them from the mainstream. The questions that arise are these:
- Why do policymakers not include women and children in the bills they pass and the law they create?
- Why is gender not a part of public policymaking? Does the price of oil affect women less than men in this country?
- By assigning a Women and Child Development Ministry to the ‘second citizens’ of this nation, are we just moving forward by virtue of tokenism – giving women a restricted area to protest and to fight for rights while the major action is happening in the world media, elsewhere
Yes, things have changed for the better. From a housewife, my mother has been promoted to a homemaker. Political correctness of language has the ability to divert mainstream issues again bringing them back to where they started – the margins.
My father retired a few years ago and decided to rightly slow down the pace of his life now that his earning years were behind him. But my mother has still not retired. Just a couple of years younger than my father, she tirelessly works day in and day out, putting in far more hours of work than any corporate employee would do.
And no, she doesn’t take cigarette breaks.
My mother is a fantastic storyteller. Has always been. Her innate ability to quickly come up with an idea from something as mundane as green chillies eaten by rats who scour home after home for water and end up eating more chilli-laden food is met with uproarious laughter by her grandchildren especially when she enacts it out with the flamboyance of a skilled performer.
The validation she receives is in the form of love, that is not always expressed or openly acknowledged by all members of the family. But that is all she and many other women like
her have survived on, for ages. It’s time to quantify that love.
Since this nation and its politicians love mythological metaphors, I’ll end with one. Let it be no mistake that women are holding up the economy on their little finger just like Krishna held up the Govardhan mountain and the moment that finger is removed, the mountain will come crashing in no time.