Opening the black box of marriage
There has been a debate recently over salaries for housewives. That politicians are taking it up is welcome. However, the reaction against it derives partly from an anxiety over commodification of what is seen as a labour of love, namely, a woman’s unpaid domestic and care work (UDCW) performed for her family.
Yet, various components of women’s UDCW are already commodified through paid domestic work, sex work, care work and surrogacy. Once we suspend commodification anxiety, wages for housework (WFH) is neither an outrageous idea nor a utopian one. Instead, a movement for wages for housework that goes beyond salaries for housewives can shake the foundations of patriarchy and is worthy of serious debate.
For one, India’s courts have developed a pathbreaking and robust “wages for housework” jurisprudence. My study of cases between 1968 and 2021 under the Motor Vehicles Act, 1988, reveals the consistent recognition by courts, including the Supreme Court (as recently as January 6), of the UDCW of deceased housewives. When approached by dependents for compensation for loss of services of housewives to the family, judges have quantified women’s UDCW to fix a notional monthly income, multiplied for her reproductive lifespan. This compensation is higher than an award for replacing her services or for loss of companionship.
The labour of housewives is, thus, compensated alongside that of male workers. Judges drew on constitutional law (Article 15), international human rights law, and feminist economics to recognise UDCW, resulting in significant symbolic and material gains. Some judges glorified maternal altruism, reinforcing gendered expectations of women’s labour within hetero-patriarchal marital forms. But other judges spoke of the changing nature of the household where women earned outside the home, even more than their husbands. They put UDCW on par with work outside the home.
Courts used various methods to measure pay, including the costs of replacement, the opportunity cost of UDCW, and women’s contribution to marriage as a partnership. But they pegged compensation to a woman’s motherhood status, number of children, age and educational qualifications generating poor intra-gender redistributive outcomes. Still, courts have moved beyond the threshold question of recognition for UDCW to addressing thorny questions of redistribution. Importantly, if courts can remunerate men for UDCW when housewives die, why not remunerate women for their UDCW when they are alive? Indeed, the Supreme Court (SC) in 2010 called on Parliament to introduce a community property regime (where income and property acquired by either spouse during a marriage belong to both partners) to compensate women’s UDCW upon divorce.
The SC also took strong objection to census authorities listing homemakers alongside beggars and prisoners (considered unproductive) and not accounting for women’s unpaid subsistence work. Indeed, feminist economists have long shown how the census is riddled with enumerator and respondent biases. Women’s UDCW is not considered to be work, which is a definitional bias. Yet, we lament the declining female labour force participation rate (FLFPR). But if the WFH jurisprudence is taken seriously and the census measures the labour women actually perform — UDCW and subsistence work — we can puncture the seemingly urgent “problem“ of declining FLFPR and avoid holding up paid work as a panacea where decent jobs are already rare to come by.
Finally, we must call out the subsidies that women’s UDCW provide to the State, capital and patriarchy. The WFH movement aimed to do this, by putting a price on housework to reject housework rather than lobby for salaries for housewives. Although WFH has been repackaged to demand universal basic income (UBI), I am not arguing for UBI. Instead, let us experiment with paying salaries to housewives.
By the age of 30, 95% of women are married while divorce rates are only 2.6%. The 2011 census shows 160 million women with “household work” as their main occupation, and there are possibly more. Where a woman is faced with compulsory marriage, has difficulty realising equal inheritance rights over natal property, and has no access to community property upon divorce, wages for UDCW will improve her bargaining power, allowing her to exit marriage. A salary risks entrenching gendered stereotypes for sure; some husbands will demand more UDCW, but they do this anyway. We must open the black box of marriage to fundamentally restructure it for women’s economic empowerment.
State-provided salaries for housewives can work alongside continued investment in public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and improved access to education, decent jobs and workplace protection. The government’s cash transfer of ₹500 for three months to poor women’s Jan Dhan accounts post-pandemic and focus on LPG provision suggest awareness of women’s role in managing households.
Valuing UDCW will also have ripple effects for the millions of ASHAs, anganwadi workers, school teachers and domestic workers whose labour is viewed as an extension of UDCW, as “intuitively feminine” and, thereby, devalued and underpaid. Finally, every man who has swept, mopped or washed utensils through the pandemic likely has a newfound respect for women’s UDCW. If we do not recognise women’s UDCW now, then when? As Seema Nandy, a housewife, once observed (in response to the Kolkata mayor’s proposal to license sex workers), “We labour, that is why we eat, a license is what we need.”
Prabha Kotiswaran is professor of Law and Social Justice at King’s College London
The views expressed are personal