Shoma Chatterjee
Posted November 29, 2010 from India

The Supreme Court has come down heavily on the Census of India while increasing the amount of compensation to the family of a housewife killed in a road accident. The Supreme Court observed that the contribution of a woman who looks after her family and does housework should not be deemed any less significant than that of a man who earns money by working outside. The apex court’s judgement was delivered against the verdict of lower courts that had awarded a meager compensation of Rs.2.5 lakh to the victim’s family on the ground that she was a ‘non-earning’ member of the family. If a person’s worth is to be determined solely on the basis of the amount of money he or she earns, the majority of women and children in India might find their lives reduced to zero worth. The apex court has objected to the government census listing homemakers as ‘non-workers’ and to the gender-bias inherent in this categorization while raising the compensation of Rs.2.5 lakh to the husband of the deceased granted by the Tribunal and the lower court to Rs.6 lakh. The court pointed out that there was a distinct bias against women in welfare laws and even judicial verdicts though there was a clear mandate for all authorities not to be part of any kind of gender discrimination.

Why should the Census of India classify homemakers as ‘non-workers’ on par with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners? Even prostitutes cannot be counted as ‘non-workers’. This is because by tradition and by law, the homemaker/housewife is not considered to be a productive worker in the economic sense of the term. Her work is non-productive because she does not get wages in exchange for her labour and therefore, her work does not have value-in-exchange. She is expected to seek her own reward in psychological and economic terms that comes of her work providing satisfaction to the other members of the family. Some economists would point out that she gets ‘paid’ for her services in real terms, in terms of food, clothing and shelter, in terms of goods and services. This ‘payment’ in return for housework is said to determine her status within the family. But in pure quantitative terms, isn’t the work she does greater than the goods and services she consumes? Is she then, not creating surplus value for others to benefit from? She does not draw any salary, is not entitled to retirement benefits such as pension, does not qualify for superannuation and gets no leave from the daily responsibilities of housework. Housework is not included in computing the gross national product. But this in no way means that housework is an uneconomic activity.

Some factors common to housework for homemakers across the world may be enumerated as follows: • Housework is essential to the socio-economic structure of which the family is the basic unit; • Housework is petty, isolated and monotonous involving unending hours of heard and unrewarding labour; • Housework is highly labour-intensive but is not paid for; • Housework is geographically and occupationally immobile , unlike the work by nurses, teachers, carpenters or economists; • Housework is hazardous and risky. It is estimated that about 14 million housewives in the US are injured inside their homes every year apart from being injured in marital violence; • The basic sex-role definition of the woman’s role as homemaker restricts the occupational choices of women.

Is it not ironical therefore that that the commercial market economy has a financially valued analogy for every item of housework a homemaker does on a daily basis without payment? Restaurant meals provide the parallel for preparing, cooking and serving food. Laundering services provide the analogy for washing, ironing of clothes, furnishings, etc. Housecleaning can be done professionally by professional housekeepers and domestic maids. Crèches and baby sitters can take care of small children. Each of these services needs to be paid for and thus they are computed while measuring the Gross National Product. But as a homemaker provides all these services for free, her services are kept out of evaluation and measurement of GNP.

In a world of materialistic and consumerist culture, the mother-wife role for women has been repeatedly and assertively reinforced. The United Nations Development agencies stressed on the maternal deprivation syndrome offering the World War II example when children suffered without their mothers who were forced to come out and work in agriculture and industry because men had gone to war. They therefore insisted that children need their mothers and others must remain at home and be protected by the men. Margaret Mead attacked this UN theory in 1954 as “a subtle and new form of anti-feminism in which men…under the guise of exalting the importance of maternity…are tying women more tightly to their children.” Another limiting factor is the predetermined, socially conditioned role of men which links a man’s masculinity to his ability to provide for his family consisting of elderly parents, wife and children.

The disparity between the male and female condition in capitalist society is a real problem. If our realization as individuals having 'value' in bourgeois society is only through our roles as buyers and sellers of commodities (or specifically as sellers of labour power and earners of a wage), bearing and rearing children is an obstacle to this realization. Although part of the toll of being parents can be shared, bearing the child cannot - and, whatever her class, the woman is discriminated against with respect to the male in capitalism. Patriarchal norms attribute most responsibility for child-care and home management to the homemakers while they hold men accountable for the financial support of the family. These norms (i) limit women’s education and training, (ii) lower their employment aspirations; (iii) reduce the time and energy available for extra-domestic work; and (iv) restrict women’s access to technology and credit. Thus, within the labour market, women participate in an unequal competition for men for jobs.

Housework as part of uneconomic activities has long been argued by women’s groups to be counted as an economic activity So far no change has been accepted internationally. Nevertheless, while definition-wise may not satisfy females status, without the supporting role of housework activities like cleaning, cooking and caring in the households, members of the household involved mainly in productive activities would not have been able to achieve their allocated tasks. Hence the women’s housework is crucial in all aspects of development.

“The countless chores collectively known as “housework” – cooking, washing dishes, doing laundry, making beds, sweeping, shopping etc. – apparently consume some three to four thousand hours of the average housewife’s year,” writes Oakley in The Sociology of Housework, 1974. Startling as this statistic may be, it does not even account for the constant and unquantifiable attention mothers must give to their children. Just as a woman’s maternal duties are always taken for granted, her never-ending toil as a homemaker rarely occasions expressions of appreciation within her family.

To generate labour power, two things are necessary – One, the raw materials that the labourer buys from the market for subsistence and two, the labour that is involved in transforming these raw materials into consumable items for the labourer’s individual consumption that will create labour power and sustain it. The homemaker is directly and wholly concerned with the second and partially concerned with the first. These items of consumption generate labour power in the labourer not only for the next day’s labour but also pave the way for producing the next generation of labour through progeny. But this is possible only if the labourer survives and the labourer can survive only if he consumes the basic necessities of life at the right time and in the right quality and quantity. So, both for the work of labour power for the next day and supply of labour for the next generation, the homemaker has to be continuously engaged in housework. From this standpoint, housework is definitely productive work as it sustains labour power and helps create labour for the future.

Therefore, though the relationship among the members of a family is essentially non-capitalist, the housework done by the homemaker and the labour provided by the male members are the basic preconditions to the existence and sustenance of the capitalist system of production which has itself created and nourished this non-capitalist façade for its own benefit and survival.

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