The Unacknowledged Housewife

Last Updated: Wednesday, August 10, 2011 - 17:05

Akrita Reyar

The poor housewife! She has never had it so bad. A couple of years back, film maker Mahesh Bhatt had kicked off a storm when he had equated a housewife with a prostitute, saying she provided sex to her husband in exchange of sustenance for herself and her children. And now, the housewife has been clubbed with more infamy - prostitutes, beggars and prisoners - in the National Census, as a part of the economically non-productive category.

Granted that a housewife’s activities are diverse and not easy to calculate financially, but to put her in the guild of notoriety is not fair, to say the least. Hitting out at the chauvinistic approach, the Supreme Court of India said: “Such categorisation of about 36 crore women in India by the authorities betrays a totally insensitive and callous approach towards the dignity of labour ... and also indicative of a strong gender bias.”

Citing the report of ‘Evangelical Social Action Forum and Health Brigade’ which estimates the economic value of services of women in Indian households at USD 612.8 billion annually, Justice A.K. Ganguly said: “One has to admit that in the long run, the services rendered by women in households sustain a supply of labour to the economy and keep human societies going by weaving the social fabric and keeping it in good repair. If we take these services for granted and do not attach any value to them, this may escalate the unforeseen cost in terms of deterioration of both human capabilities and the social fabric.”

Besides providing a general feeling of well being and emotional support, economists have long debated about setting an economic value to household services of women to arrive at a correct estimate of the country’s Gross Domestic Product. The reasons and advantages for encapsulating and evaluating household chores are several:
1. The simple fact of life is that most housewives do a lot of work. Whether it is mopping, cooking, washing clothes and utensils, managing accounts, teaching children, a variety of services are being offered.

2. Putting an economic value to household work will improve a woman’s sense of self worth. Mostly, a housewife has an inferior status in the family as she fails to bring in real money.

3. The government will be able to arrive at the correct picture of the GDP, as all goods and services produced in the nation will be comprehensively covered. It will thus provide critical understanding of certain economic issues, where presently there remain gaps.

4. It will help the government plan public investment and frame social protection policies like insurance and pension for this segment, which is completely out of the net at the moment.

5. A housewife’s services help the nation achieve better health, nutrition, education and human capital formation. Measuring the base thus becomes critical.

6. Women, especially in villages, contribute to the cottage industry without their work actually being counted. For example, work involving sewing, hand painting, knitting, preparing food preservatives is done at the household level. Housewives make phulkari sheets, do batik dyeing, make woollen sweaters, scarves, socks etc but none of this is accounted for.

7. Evaluating a housewife’s chores financially will also work as counter to balance out the negatives of her routine. As of now, household tasks reduce a woman’s physical mobility. And because these chores are repetitive in nature, they are boring and do not provide much learning. Most importantly, household work is a 24-hour job, with no days offs.

8. It’s simply unfair as the services of a nurse and a nanny are included in the economic parameter, but a woman who is rendering the same duties is not.

9. Economy should not just be about money, but also opportunities and activities of caring for ourselves, other people, the society, and the environment. Measures like health and happiness are equally important in human life. Bhutan has shown the way by measuring the country’s Gross Domestic Happiness.

It must also be realized that a woman who is forced to stay at home and do domestic chores does not have the opportunity to go out and make a living. This reduces her chances of becoming an economically independent person. Giving her value for her due is thus infinitely important. Even more so in India, where just over one-tenth of the total female population, in the age group 18-59 years, is engaged in “economic activity” and that too mostly in the agricultural sector.

It must be said that efforts have regularly been made by several economists to arrive at a satisfactory methodology for measuring a housewife’s input. The UN uses the Extended System of National Accounts (ESNA), which evaluates unpaid household work.

In the Indian context, a Technical Committee headed by Indira Hirway conducted a survey and developed suitable measurement parameters. The findings of the body were published in the form of a comprehensive report with the Department of Statistics, Government of India (CSO 2000).

Hirway has also written papers about global trends in this field and elucidates that it was Szalai, a Hungarian sociologist, and economist Gary Becker who made significant pioneering moves towards the development of concepts and methods of Time Use studies and compared these across several countries in the 1960s. Later, Duncan Ironmonger mooted the idea of combining Gross Household Product and Gross Market Product to get the true value of the Gross Domestic Product.

Canada, in 1996, became the first country in the world to hold a census and collect data on unpaid work. According to gathered material: “Women and men in Canada have similar total workloads but men spend most of their time, 4.5 hours a day, in paid work and 2.7 hours in unpaid work. For women, the statistics are reversed with 2.8 hours in paid work and 4.4 hours in unpaid work. Women perform 2/3 of the 25 billion hours of unpaid work Canadians perform every year and on average women spend twice as much time (2/3) on unpaid work as on paid work (1/3).”

Meanwhile, commenting on the increasing number of women joining the workforce in the US, economist Paul Krugman said: “I don`t mean to imply that there`s something wrong with more women working, but a gain in family income that occurs because a spouse goes to work isn’t the same thing as a wage increase. In particular it may carry hidden costs that offset some of the gains in money income, such as reduced time to spend on housework, greater dependence on prepared food, day-care expenses, and so on.”

Despite several efforts, governments across the world have failed to arrive at a uniform or satisfactory methodology to accurately gauge the services of a housewife or put an economic value to them.

Having stated the importance of such an evaluation, it must also be admitted that the task is by no ways easy. Household chores in actuality just have a notional value, and they can be very segregated and diversified depending on the strata of the society a woman belongs to and the region she hails from. To arrive at a measurement will not be a mean task. But it simply is one that must be done.

Because till such time that the matter is resolved and some biometric data collection methodology comes to the rescue of a housewife, she will unfairly be destined to just slug it out without a shilling to her name and without any credit for all the sweat and toil.



First Published: Monday, August 30, 2010 - 13:28

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