Will the bill proposed to make husbands pay a salary to stay-at-home wives ensure housewives get their due recognition?

Our Women and Child Development Minister strikes me as a well-intentioned person. She seems to want to do whatever is possible to empower women in our country who are victims of patriarchy, an indubitably lofty goal. However, whether the legislative process she’s resorting to is likely to produce optimal results has become a hotly debated issue. Over the last week or two, the national media has carried reports of her sharing the intention of her ministry to table a bill in parliament that would ensure that husbands pay their wives (those who choose to be housewives, and who might, as one report says, hereafter be referred to as home engineers) a salary (or honorarium or whatever the babus in all their wisdom choose to call it) of about 10 -20 per cent of their earnings. Expectedly, these reports have generated more rants than raves.

Since there is nothing much about the said bill on the ministry’s website, nor is a draft bill yet available for public scrutiny, I’m assuming that the ministry is still at the stage of good intentions on this matter. As I see it, the core issue the ministry is addressing is the devaluation of the already undervalued role of the housewife in our country. While on the one hand, women are held up as the bedrock of the Indian family, the way they have been treated over the centuries makes one realise that this pedestalisation is more a sop than a genuine recognition.

Bit of a loser

As a result, when a young woman chooses to be a housewife or homemaker or home engineer or whatever the politically correct term you may feel comfortable to use, she is generally looked upon as a bit of a loser. Also, she is seen to run the risk of becoming overly financially dependent on her husband. And if she chooses to be a ‘working woman’ (a dreadful term really, for the implication here is that the housewife does no work), she is exhorted to keep her finances separate from those of her husband’s for her own protection.

One major issue that young urban couples in our country face in the first year of their marriage is financial management - the ‘your money, my money, our money’ conflict. Obviously this is substantially on account of ego clashes and control games that most couples play out in the early stages of marriage, but to a lesser, though not insignificant extent, the feeling of devaluation or undervaluation referred to earlier does play a role, a reflection of the fact that, in contemporary life, the parameters we use to value ourselves and our contribution are generally economic. Which is why many husbands have a problem when their wives earn more than they do. And which is also why we don’t know how to value the contribution of a housewife since a rupee value has not been placed on it.

And this is an issue not just in our country that, but in many other parts of the world too. Some countries have computed housewives’ ‘wages’, indexed to the cost of labour for housekeeping, child care, driving and other chores (e.g. more than $80,000 per annum in the US, about £30,000 in the UK). Ironically, the housewife’s salary so computed, may sometimes be twice that of the husband’s. Of course, these estimates aren’t really official governmental computations, nor are housewives, to the best of my knowledge, given these sums as compensation towards the work they do, but they certainly do reflect the growing need to establish parity between what the housewife does and what the husband earns. And I believe this is happening to ensure that the housewife's contribution is valued as much as that of the wage-earner so that both partners can mutually respect each other.

However, if the Ministry of Women and Child Development is able to pull off this piece of legislation, it will inexorably change the husband-wife relationship to that between employer and employee, for the expectation is that the payment be made from the husband’s post-tax income to the wife’s account as a tax-exempt salary. And what if the husband then starts adversely appraising, as employers are wont to do, the wife’s performance and therefore proportionately deducts what is due to her, or treats her visit to her parents as unpaid leave, or refuses to permit her more than ten days of sick leave per year? Who do you think becomes more empowered - husband or housewife?

Not by legislation

I believe that the concept of community property, wherein all property, movable and immovable, acquired after marriage, whatever the source of funds, is treated as joint property of both partners, is the most empowerment that legislation is capable of. Changing power structures and financial decision making patterns in a marriage, while being certainly desirable, can never be accomplished by legislation, for in a marriage based on patriarchy, a salary given to a housewife will only be managed by the husband.

Only massive educational efforts launched at encouraging financial transparency and joint financial planning by couples, can ever hope to make women who opt to be housewives and do thankless jobs day after day, feel vindicated in their choice and more valued than they presently are. Some investment to this end may, perhaps, be worth everyone's while.

vijay.nagaswami@ gmail.com