Women and Their Unpaid Labour

by | May 16, 2024

From my experience of working in a small village called Mehwar Kalan, of the Haridwar district in Uttarakhand, women are seen playing an important role in the functioning of the households and society. The population of this village is 6318 and there are 3140 females and 3178 males in 1054 homes. The society here is a mix of scheduled caste, other backward classes and general category from Hindus and Muslims. All are seen to live in harmony. It is their similar stories and shared past experiences that binds them all in the society irrespective of the faith?

It is often heard in the society that women are weak, then why is the key to running a household given and entrusted into a woman’s hands? As nurturer and caregivers, women here have been the building block of their family. At the same time they have also taken the traditions and customs of their communities along their journey.

The Indian society consists of 51.96% males and 48.04% females. The contribution and appreciation of both is important for the smooth running of the livelihood and economy at large. However women might be held back from participating in paid work because of the demands of unpaid labour at home.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines unpaid labour as the non-compensated time spent completing domestic tasks such as caring for children, the elderly, or other household or non-household members, cooking, cleaning, doing laundry, and shopping for household goods, among others. While necessary for the smooth running of households, this labour is both unpaid and unrecorded. Unpaid labour doesn’t factor into a country’s Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P) calculations or other measures of economic growth.

A middle aged woman firing a chulha in a rural setup

A women of Mehwar Kalan cooking food on chulha

Division of Work by Gender Roles

In all the household I visited for the students and parents engagement for my work, I saw women the busiest – doing cooking, cleaning, serving etc. when guests arrive. These tasks might look mundane but are essential for living. Here the traditional gender roles are prevalent. With women primarily engaged in domestic duties which is mostly unpaid labour and men going out for daily paid work. This segregation in roles stems from cultural norms and historical practices. Where women were responsible for managing household chores, and fulfil care giving responsibilities.

Whenever we talk to the students at our studying center and ask them what does your mother do? Many boys reply “kuch nahi karti vo toh” (she does nothing). It is because these boys do not recognise the efforts of their mothers or women in the household. Behind this is a mindset which forces us to believe that ‘work’ means something which we get compensated for.

Oxfam reports that women and girls handle more than three-quarters of the unpaid care work in the world, carrying out 12.5 billion hours of this work every day. While necessary for the smooth running of households, this labour is both unpaid and unrecorded; unpaid labour doesn’t factor into a country’s Gross Domestic Product (G.D.P) calculations or other measures of economic growth.


Life Torn Between the Longing for Aspiration and Love for Others

Shanti Devi, a 40 years old housewife has four children with her husband in her family. Her day starts before sunrise, carefully clearing her makeshift bed she lays on the ground, in order to not wake anyone else sleeping beside her. She then goes to milk the cows for her family. She comes back and starts preparing lunch for her husband and children.

Though the morning hustle-bustle comes to a halt for some time, her hands do not stop. She continues to do the chores, washes the morning utensils and everyone’s clothes, followed by bathing the cow. In the evening she visits her farm backside to check on the crops. During the quite moments her thoughts drift to her dreams and aspirations but deep down she feels what she is doing for her family is love and not a transaction.

The Invisible Contribution

Shanti Devi’s life might seem like that of an ordinary woman, but imagine if Shanti Devi were absent from that household, and her contribution was missing. How would the other five members supposedly contributing to the economy would move forward? Would they have the same ease in life as they have with Shanti’s work? If a woman decides to quit her work, the unpaid labour she has to do everyday, are her male counterparts willing to take up the domestic work?

Shanti’s husband works outside in a salaried job, which is crucial at home and in society. But without Shanti, he wouldn’t be able to fulfil his responsibilities. Many women here are working as domestic workers, just like Shanti, without a salary. At the same time they bear the brunt of domestic violence and alcohol abuse which is prevalent in Mehwar Kalan.

Also read: Image of a Working Woman

Women working in a ripe wheat field. Most of work in the farms is unpaid labour by women.

Shanti Devi in red salwar during evening time at her farm cutting gehu (wheat)

Next Generations

There are many women like Shanti Devi in Mehwar Kalan who have sacrificed their dreams to fulfill the dreams of their families. But we see a change in the new generation, they are embracing their dreams and future. Swani, one of our student at the studying center in Mehwar tells us that she wants to be an English teacher. She does not want to be an unpaid worker. Young girls here are learning to be independent and mothers like Shanti Devi are also encouraging their daughters to pursue their dreams.

Along with the male members, the women work on the farm as well. Farm work is a labour intensive job and most of the women from scheduled castes actively engage in it. For the women working on the farm is a double shift. Female farmers are paid Rs 350/day while male farmers are paid Rs 500/day. Many women are even willing to work without pay in return of wheat.

Gehu katne ke samay pure pariwar ko hi khet jana padta hai, kyuki jitna gehu katenge utna hi hame bhi milega. 1 beegha kaatne par 40 kilo gehu milta hai. Is saal maine akele ne 15 beegha gehu kaata hai, is hisaab se hame 600 killo gehu mila hai. Itna gehu hamaray saal bhar ke liye kaafi ho jaata hai. (During wheat harvesting, the entire family goes to the field, because the more we cut, the more we get. 1 beegha leads to 40kg wheat for us. This year, i alone harvested 15 beeghas, leading to 600kg wheat. This is adequate for the family for the whole year)

Radha, a woman from the local community
A women taking care of her cattle. It is part of her daily routine in morning and evening

Women are also responsible for taking care of the livestock. They are also involved in activities like milking the cows, churning the milk to make butter or ghee. From picking up the cow dung to turning them into cakes, they work hard continuously to bring income home. Nowadays a single cow dung cake can fetch anything between Rs 80-150 depending on person to person.

A New Found Hope

Majority of the men are doing labour intensive work. They are electricians, plumbers, painters, carpenters etc. which brings home daily income of 250-300 rupees. Since it is not always sufficient to meet the needs, women step in to contribute through their skills. With the continuous hard work and the ability to bring income home, women are understanding the importance of financial backup. It is becoming evident with the increasing number of women engaged in Self Help Groups (committees through it).

The committee helps them get lump sum money to attend needs like marriage of the children, home repair, getting new crops for the farm. Through the committee system, women also aim to be financially independent and support their families.Women consider putting money in committee a safe option, who otherwise fear that their husbands would take their hard earned money to drink alcohol.

Financial Security

For more financial security and independence women also work as Anganwadi and Asha workers. Women also run their own kirana stores and manage leadership positions at the village level. Women also hold the postions of teachers in many government schools. The positions of block education officer, cluster education manager are all managed by women. Though these shifts are making the women independent in the face of adversities possible, is their contribution getting appreciated and recognised by the society?

Women like Shanti Devi and Radha are the pillars for the functioning of the society. The unpaid contributions of women in household management, childcare, and eldercare can’t go unseen. They play an essential role for the well-being and stability of the community. There is a need to sensitize and build community awareness about the contribution of women in the workforce. Men’s contribution to the the economy and society might be easy to understand as most of it includes paid work. But the understanding of women’s contribution is much more complex and essential to understand the functioning of a society.

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