Recognising the Economic Value of Housework Can Pave the Way to Gender Justice

It is high time that methods are devised to estimate the monetary value of household tasks so that women are empowered socially and financially, writes gender economist Prof Dr Rameeza A Rasheed.

By Prof Dr Rameeza A Rasheed 

The public debate about assigning economic value to housework by millions of homemakers is a welcome one. That means recognition of the fact that housework is an economic activity, and an attempt to fix a monetary value for all the physical tasks rendered by the homemakers throughout their lifetime without holiday or retirement, a demand that feminists have been making for some time.

We have to thank the pandemic and the following prolonged and frequent lockdowns announced by governments worldwide for opening the eyes of men to the endless housework activities performed by women throughout the day, more so now due to husbands and children being homebound for longer periods.

Men may have now realised the injustice done to women by calling them “just housewives” and not attaching an economic value to their tasks. 

Since 1971, the Census of India states that, “An adult woman engaged in household duties but not doing any productive work to augment the family resources is considered as a non-worker.”

If that is not shocking enough, the Census definition of non-worker is highly problematic at various levels. Besides “housewives” and students, the list includes “disabled persons”, “beggars”, “prostitutes” and unemployed persons.

Housework – which includes cooking, maintenance of the cleanliness of the home, healthcare, childcare, eldercare, guest care and festival arrangements, among a lot of other home-related activities – has been performed by generation after generation of women in the interest of family welfare and for the love of family members.

Women do not realise they are being exploited by a system that treats their onerous work as having zero value in terms of money. Educated urban women – in addition to their physical household tasks – are also engaged in managing their children’s education, the family’s financial matters, and crises.

Moreover, they have sacrificed well-paying jobs by opting out of the workforce to be full-time homemakers by giving preference to the welfare of the children and elders at home after marriage.

They do not demand a fixed monthly salary for their tasks, but categorising these millions of women officially as non-workers just because no one has yet come up with a system to calculate the monetary value of their household labours is not acceptable.

What is an economic activity? Any activity resulting in the generation of marketable goods and services is an economic activity and hence included in the calculation of national income. In this way, the monetary value of love, dedication and hard work with which household tasks are rendered can never be calculated.

In addition, the family welfare promoted by women’s efficient management of the home – through prevalence of peace and harmony in homes, the sound physical and mental health status of the family members, the education and career advancement of the family members, and the values of life inculcated in the minds of children – is not a quantifiable commodity.

The Supreme Court of India, recognising these points, made a statement in 2010 that, “Housewives are an invaluable unpaid resource and definitely not unproductive.”

Earlier this year, the Supreme Court again said, “The conception that housemakers do not work or that they do not add economic value to the household is a problematic idea that has persisted for many years and must be overcome.”

How invaluable a woman’s role is within a family is often noticed only when she is away from the family due to travel, hospitalisation or death. 

It is high time that methods are devised to estimate the monetary value of household tasks. Economists have advocated two methods to measure the economic value of housework: the “opportunity cost method” and “the replacement cost method”.

The opportunity cost method calculates the monetary value as “what a household sacrifices by having a woman stay at home.” For example, if a woman is capable of earning an income every month through a regular job outside her home, but chooses to stay at home due to family responsibilities, the value of her housework is equal to the monthly income sacrificed by her decision to stay at home due to various reasons.

The shortcoming of this suggestion is that the value of housework will then vary as per the educational qualifications of women and their career position. But the energy, time and dedication spent in managing household tasks and family care do not vary as per the educational qualification of the doer or her career status outside the home.

The replacement cost method approach, on the other hand, asks, “How much would it cost to replace the services of the homemaker?” This would vary as per the number of domestic assistants a household would employ to compensate for the absence of a mother or wife from home. The total expenditure involved in the payment of monthly salaries to the helpers (for example, a cook, cleaner, babysitter, caregiver for elders, finance and administrative manager, and so on) would be counted as the value of housework of the woman of that household.

But this method has the danger of fixing the value of a homemaker’s work as per the economic status of a household. Hence, justice would not be done to women of lesser economic status although the burden of home responsibilities is the same for all categories of women.

And so, till today, there has been no satisfactory method of calculating the monetary value of housework. But it is important for every nation find a solution so that women’s essential tasks performed on the home front are not missed out in national income calculation.

According to the International Labour Organisation, the value of unpaid care work by women globally is estimated at $11 billion a year. As per India’s NSSO survey, more than 50 percent of rural women and 20 percent of urban women are engaged in non-paid activities such as fetching water, firewood collection, management of cattle, and assistance in farm work and in household industries, in addition to their responsibilities at home.

It can be assumed that one requires at least 12 hours a day to perform these tasks. Even if they are paid minimum wages, women’s contribution to national income would be considerable. Then they would not be humiliated as “just a housewife” or “non-worker” or as “an unproductive human resource”. They would not have to endure lifelong gender injustice in the form of non-recognition of their important contribution to the welfare of the family, society and the nation. 

Realising the prevalence of gender injustice in this matter, the Supreme Court of India has documented that, “Services rendered by women in the households sustain a supply of labour to the economy and keep human societies going. If the contribution is taken for granted, it may result in the escalation of unforeseen costs… to human capabilities and the social fabric.”

Continuously ignoring the economic contribution of women through housework has resulted in feminisation of poverty, social oppression, domestic violence, and suicidal tendencies among women.

Until the Indian government comes up with a method to fairly measure the economic value of housework, families can agree upon a fixed percentage of the husband’s income as the wife’s contribution to the household income, and deposit it in the wife’s bank account every month.

This would give monetary value to their work to a certain extent and a sense of financial independence since they can spend this money or save or invest as per their wish.

It is both good economics and good public policy to measure women’s contribution to the economy. One need not pay women for their housework from tax revenue as some immature politicians have demanded or promised

An official estimate of housework by women would help in boosting self-confidence among underprivileged women due to recognition of their economic worth. Until that happens, women will continue to face injustice, with adverse effects to their social and economic wellbeing.

Prof Dr Rameeza A Rasheed is a retired professor of economics, specialising in gender economics and health economics. At present, she is a freelance writer focusing on gender, higher education and senior-citizen issues, and is based in Chennai.

Lead image credit: Canva

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