THE OTHER HALF Kalpana Sharma

Why do women work so hard?

Ahead of the International Woman's Day , Proctor and Gamble launched iconic couple Manchu Lakshmi and husband Anand Srinivasan do the laundry with Ariel -His and Her pack detergent powder in Hyderabad. Photo: P.V. Sivakumar  

Two recent television advertisements have provoked some discussion. One, for a washing detergent, has the catchline, “Share the load”, hinting that men should share the work load that usually falls on the shoulders of women. The other is for a washing machine. Its unique selling proposition is that it is so simple to operate that even a man can do it – suggesting, of course, that men too should consider washing clothes (or rather, letting the machine wash them).

Both ads are interesting and are attempting to be different. But are they really touching on the basic problem? Men or women should be able to operate appliances like washing machines that are designed to make domestic work less of a drudgery. Yet, does that happen? Do a random check in your neighbourhood and find out how many men, in households with washing machines, wash the clothes. I can guarantee that in the majority it will be the woman of the house, or the woman domestic help, and not the man who does this. Despite technology, certain tasks remain a woman’s work and washing clothes is one of them.

Kalpana Sharma
By setting boundaries for what women can and cannot do and what they must do, our society is increasing the burden that the majority of women already carry. What they must do are the so-called “women’s tasks” that include cleaning, caring, cooking as well as fetching — water and firewood, for instance. In rural areas, some of the most back-breaking tasks in the field are assigned to women. Yet, even as women do all this, their contribution is not counted as “work” at all.

You read headlines, like this one that I spotted in The New York Times recently asking, “Why aren’t India’s women working?” The article was only looking at paid work, and here India’s record is abysmal. In fact, according to the International Labour Organisation, in the ranking of nations, India stands 11th from the bottom in terms of female labour participation. Although the Indian economy grew steadily between 2004-11, the percentage of women in paid employment fell from 31 per cent to 24 per cent.

So, we have to worry not just about why India’s women are working so hard, but also why they cannot find work for which they are paid.

These are two sides of the same coin. Women are pushed into a relentless cycle of work because certain jobs are designated as theirs to do, irrespective of age, ill health, pregnancy or other problems.

One of these is collecting fuel to light the stove in the home. Despite all the progress our country is touted to have made, it is distressing to know that 67 per cent of India’s rural households still depend on firewood and wood chips as cooking fuel. The burden of this unfortunate statistic falls squarely on the shoulders of women. Not only do they have to fetch the firewood, they suffer the health consequences of cooking on stoves using this inefficient and polluting fuel.

In cities, poor women might not fetch firewood but collecting water is their job, apart from cleaning, caring and cooking. In addition, given the cost of living, poor women do all this in other people’s homes, as domestic help, while their middle-class sisters commute long distances to do a variety of paid jobs. But at the end of the day, the poor and not-so-poor women return to their homes and continue working.

What needs to change is this assumption that only women can do certain jobs. Why? Men cook but mostly if it is a paid job. When they come home, it is the woman who will cook. Men also work as domestics. But in their homes, the women will do all those chores. And in educated households, where both husband and wife have paid jobs and can afford domestic help and appliances that reduce the burden of housework, it is still the woman who ends up doing certain tasks.

As for the limits placed on what women can and cannot do outside their homes, some of these are crumbling. But not fast enough. For instance, while India can boast of a higher percentage of women pilots (11.7 per cent of the total of 5,100 compared to just 3 per cent in the rest of the world), the gender gap is vast in the majority of professions.

So, even if a washing machine is made simple enough for a man to use — and that indeed is funny given that men are always projected as better at handling anything mechanical — the day has yet to dawn when a man tells his wife, “Let me wash the clothes”.

The views expressed here are personal.

Kalpana Sharma is an independent journalist and columnist based in Mumbai.


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Printable version | Apr 23, 2021 2:45:43 PM |

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