How COVID-19 is an Opportunity To Come Together As A Gender Equal Society – Starting at Home

Chryslynn D'Costa

- May 1, 2020

A few years ago I stood in a grade one classroom in rural Rajasthan. I was teaching the children shapes. A very enthusiastic child stood up and insisted on sharing a poem. “ Mummy ki roti gol gol. Papa ka paisa gol gol…” (Mother’s chapatis are round and father’s money is round). At the age of five, this child had acknowledged that the mother’s place was in the kitchen and that the money belonged to the father.

Curious, I asked, “Why does the money belong to your father?” Without any hesitation, the child answered, “Because he earned it.” “So does mummy have any money?”, I asked. “If mummy wants money she has to ask father for it.”

My thought was, “How would daddy go to work if mummy didn’t walk two hours to collect the water, forty minutes to collect firewood to heat the water, wake at 5am to milk the cow for tea, bathe you for school….” But I let it rest. 

This is rural Rajasthan but how different is the picture in urban India. Last week a manager concluded an online team meeting. “Great to see all your faces after so long. We should catch up at least twice a week on video call.” The other team members nodded in agreement. “Twice a week sounds good Sir, but I may be busy in the morning if my wife makes me do her dishes or cut some vegetables.” said one of the male colleagues. Everyone laughed.

The COVID 19 situation has left middle and upper middle class India stranded without their house help requiring men to participate in household chores. Surely some men are stepping up at an individual level. But what is the extent of the male participation in household work? More importantly how sustainable is this participation when regular life resumes? 

During this lockdown when we are reflecting on lifestyle change, it is important to assess how COVID 19 can be an opportunity to re-distribute unpaid work and achieve gender equality.

What is unpaid work? In her book Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men, Caroline Criado Perez explains that the term working woman is a tautology as there is no such thing as a woman who doesn’t work. There is only a woman who is paid for work and a woman who isn’t. In economic research, caregiving of children and elderly and other household chores that are critical for the survival of the family are referred to as unpaid work.

According to the World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report 2020 there is no country where men spend the same amount of time on unpaid work as women. And even in countries where the gender gap ratio is lowest (i.e. Norway or the United States), the ratio of unpaid work by women and men is still 2:1 respectively.

Globally 75 percent of unpaid work is done by women. Women in India currently spend upto 352 minutes per day on domestic work, 577% more than men (52 minutes). Indian women spend at least 40% more than women in South Africa and China according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Traditional gender norms, lack of government policy for elder or child care giving,  absence of infrastructure and basic necessities like water and cooking gas continue to perpetuate these statistics.

Despite the assistance of paid house helpers, women continue to do the bulk of unpaid work because although the urban woman does not collect water or firewood, she still makes the lunch boxes, meal plan, grocery list, dirty laundry and much more.

Why is it important to address the gender gap in unpaid work? Unpaid work penalizes women. Girls as young as five do significantly more housework than their brothers. This increases with age. In the rural context, young girls in countries like Africa and India are expected to collect water for their family. This task is often repeated many times a day, preventing young girls from attending mainstream schools.

Caroline Criado Perez explains that although women have increasingly joined the paid workforce, men have not subsequently increased their share of unpaid work. Women now do a double shift regardless of the proportion of household income they bring – office and home. Research continues to show the physical and mental health penalties women pay for this double shift.

A Finnish study showed how single women recover better from heart attacks than married women. Married women who have undergone a bypass surgery tend to go right back into the household work as compared to men who have a caregiver.

In India unpaid work prevents women from taking up full-time employment. Despite increasing levels of educational attainment, the female labour force participation of women in India is 24.8 percent. This keeps women from contributing their expertise to the country’s economy, inturn impacting the GDP. Indian women’s unpaid work plays a crucial role in sustaining economic activity, equivalent to 3.1% of GDP. But it also hinders the woman’s achievement of economic freedom. Leaving women with less decision making power and in many cases having to continue living in abusive homes.

It is useful for families in safe homes to reflect on how the distribution of unpaid work can be sustained post the lockdown. A safe household provides women a space to communicate. Unfortunately, not all Indian homes have this safe space. But homes that do will require both men and women to step out of their comfort zone. This requires the male partner to ask and the female partner to communicate.

Research suggests that women often attribute their performance of unpaid work to their accomplishment as a wife or mother. However, in truth a woman’s mental and physical health is critical to a marriage and parenthood. Women must attempt to better communicate the areas where help is required and importantly be ok if those tasks are not always accomplished with perfection. It is important that the woman not step in when a task is assigned to the child or partner but allow them time with their learning curve.

It is important for men to participate in the less glamorous household responsibilities. Going beyond bike rides and picnics with the children to prepare the morning tiffin, make the doctor’s appointment, put the laundry in the cupboard, plan the meals and grocery list. 

Redistribution of unpaid work will bring us closer to a more gender equal society where daughters have an increased access to education, employment and economic freedom and sons have the freedom to choose their career paths beyond the traditional narrow idea of being the sole provider.

About the Author

Chryslynn D’Costa is the Co-founder and Head of Research at Serein. After studying Economics from St. Xavier’s College in Mumbai, Chryslynn joined the Gandhi Fellowship Program in Rajasthan that addresses educational leadership in rural government schools. She graduated from Azim Premji University in Bangalore with a Master’s in Education. Her work at APU and in Rajasthan strengthened her interest and expertise on leadership, gender, diversity and inclusion. It has led her to understand the nuances of organisational culture and workings of diverse teams. Chryslynn is a regular columnist with publications such as LiveMint and The Hindu and serves as external member to several company’s Internal Committee (IC).

Serein Inc is an end to end service partner for the implementation of Prevention of Sexual Harassment (POSH) legal compliance. We partner with companies on case redressal and policies to proactively build safer work cultures and sexual harassment (POSH) trainings either in person or virtually. For more details on diversity, inclusion and prevention of sexual harassment (POSH training in India and the US) send us a note.

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