Unpaid Care Work : Are Women Getting A Raw Deal?

Posted: May 24, 2014

If you spend time cleaning, cooking, washing, and taking care of your family, do you deserve recognition? Why women believe their role as care-givers is pre-destined, and why this must stop.

I vividly remember an uncle of mine telling me how his wife does nothing, while he brings the bread to the house. He was implying that the daily chores had no value to add to his smooth-functioning existence. And this was a young, educated man, raised in a city.

A typical scenario in an Indian home includes at least one female member of the house doing the daily chores, breaking her back, and still being called a Housewife (which is considered equivalent to having no job). This scenario, is much worse in rural areas where the number of family members to take care of, and the number of household tasks multiply immensely.

The situation of rural women who are unable to open their mouths cannot be imagined. On one of the field trips to Bihar (one of the most backward states in India), I came across a family of 8 members with one woman in the productive, young age group taking care of all of the rest. Her daily chores included taking care of her 5 children, husband, his parents, and the animals of the house. With poverty on one hand, and her cooking, washing, bathing, care-taking cycle on the other, she was made to believe that this is the reason why she exists.

To me, this extreme burden with no appreciation or accountability on the part of society sounded brutal. Not only did it violate her body but  it had also created mental stress in her, giving rise to multiple health problems (without a care-giver for herself!). Worse still, she was  beaten up quite often by her husband. Needless to say, her productivity is challenged every day, like that of many other women. With little food to eat, little energy to carry out these chores, the children ended up being neglected many a time, leading to poorly developed adults later on.

To me, this extreme burden with no appreciation or accountability on the part of society sounded brutal.

What happens to the benefits the Government provides them with, like free food and health care,  or adult education ? She pointed out, “When I am at home, I am always busy doing different tasks. When do you expect me to go outside to the health care center to get myself examined? That is only done when the situation is out of hands. This is my role as a woman. I have to be the nurturer of the house and so, at the end, I don’t find time to think of myself.” One woman and multiple children often lead to ignorance with respect to education, health & sanitation, and even building civic values. Thereby, she might just bring up her daughter in the same way, with the same values: this is my fate!

It’s a vicious circle.

This is a common sight. For women like her don’t know what to do except take it as their fate. It is even more painful when nobody acknowledges the care activities, let alone provide them with right kind of resources to function smoothly. The rights of caregivers are symbiotically intertwined with rights of care receivers. For me, I think the Government providing funds and resources is one aspect but simply providing access of care givers (who are mostly women) to resources should not be an indicator of  their use of these resources too.

“This is my role as a woman. I have to be the nurturer of the house and so, at the end, I don’t find time to think of myself.”

What is required is that the society starts a) accepting unpaid care work as a form of work, b) helping to provide a support structure for the woman who is doing the back-breaking tasks and c) converting access to usage of services. While it is easier said than done, I think what we truly require along with Government efforts is a Behaviour Change Campaign.

Right now, rural women (urban too, atleast in India) face two kinds of problems with respect to their daily care chores:

a) They don’t know that its not their prescribed job but a gendered role that was given ages ago and has been going on as a tradition, and;

b) the people around, the care receivers, don’t understand the concept of how if these starting points don’t exist, their own productivity is hampered. Acceptance and acknowledgement by their peers is a crucial aspect of defining empowerment with respect to unpaid care work.

I have thought of this many a times. In fact, I have been a party to many debates where I have been the only one arguing, making people understand how its not a biological role for women, but a choice that they make, for which they need to be valued. Behaviour Change Campaigns are very crucial.

And so, when I think of how to raise this issue as a major “Human Rights” issue in the country, here is what I think could help at the community level: Media Advocacy, Using Edutainment Strategy (Education through Entertainment) via soap operas, Talk shows, positive reinforcements through movies, re-scripting the way we see women in homes, are a few steps. We still have a lot of communities who enjoy access to folk music, folk dance, nautanki (local theatre) and so, using these to reach the unreachable local women in order to make them aware is crucial. The process has to be smooth in order to avoid rebellion from the community and so, I have seen that local community media is the best way of taking the message forward. In this the immense pool of ICT Tools: Internet, SMS technology etc can help create huge momentum with the help of  Opinion Leaders. At the local level, the opinion leaders like Panchayats (Local governance bodies) with Women heads can be a crucial starting point to take the message forward. Training of community workers to see this aspect and then take it forward can be very helpful.

Behaviour Change Campaigns are very crucial.

In my personal experience, soap operas with educational messages work, and storytelling and reinforcing positive examples  among the community is vital. If people around her start valuing her presence, the process of her participating in decision making, education of children, her own growth and development, health facilities etc will smoothen up.

Policy advocacy is important, but that has to come along with a change in tradition and age-old customs and defined roles of women as care givers. I have seen how policies in India remain as paper documents that don’t percolate down to the most crucial level of the country, the household.

My heart waits to see a house in a village in India where the man helps a woman in the kitchen, where the grandparents do more than just sitting and sipping hukka (tobacco) and where a woman goes to a doctor when she doesn’t feel well. That my dear friends, would be the starting point of change.

What is needed for you to take note of this? Just a question:

Are you valuing the unpaid care work around you?


Pic credit: Jacqueline Tinney (used under a CC license)


A Development Communication & Social Work professional working in the field of gender, health and technology

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  1. You have hit the nail on the head. It happens in cities too, this discrimination
    I remember an ex-neighbor of mine, of the ‘business community’, who has 4 children and was shocked that i was expecting my husband to help in the household chores and that i was not in the kitchen constantly cooking and cleaning. Her husband ( and MIL) constantly tried to keep me from talking to her and ‘infecting’ her with my ideas. I remember her telling me to keep away from her daughters(she had 3), so that they would not be conflicted about their place in the world!!

    • I agree totally. There are women out there who don’t want their daughters to get aware of the systems and possibilities that could exist. In this process, they only dig their daughters grave. I have many around me who don’t like their daughters talking to me.

  2. I am totally agree that the care takers are taken as granted even in the educted families and teaching the little ones thats way. The care takers should get paid, as if they get paid they will be valued as per Indian mentality

    • Thank you for saying that it also our duty to educate the children (boys and girls) on these issues. If we teach our sons to share responsibilities, things will change much faster!

  3. I think with the current urban generation (25-40) this has started. Most husbands help out today, the good news is not be because they have to but because they think it’s the natural thing to do. About the rest of the country, we are light years behind, one way I think is education but then the carriers of education to those places should themselves not be prejudiced… So yes it’s not an easy task that lies ahead to change society…

  4. Many changes taken place in last couple of decades, except women’s role inside the household. I don’t really know when this is going to end but one thinking is the potentiality of building industries based on these care works or deriving our way towards a well structured care economy.

  5. This is one of the sad situations in India. The only solution that I see is in the younger generation taking charge to teach the men in family about sharing equal responsibilities. I fear from my own experience that education is not much helpful here.

    My own ex-husband who was a highly qualified IIT engineer and hailed from a rural background saw nothing wrong in the elder (and quite capable) members of the family chatting around and expecting the young women of the house to provide them with 24 hours services. The situation is so painful that the males of family consider it beneath their status to fetch a glass of water from their own kitchen.

    I think inspite of intial opposition, women should take charge and make men realise their worth. They need to put their foot down and first take care of themselves. I know this might not be possible in rural India where wife beating is a society sanctioned event, but at least the women in cities should make some noise.

    Finally I must congratulate Suchi for putting together this brave and relevant article. More such pieces in mainstream society would surely turn the tide.

  6. Well written article Suchi. Women contribute so much at home that if we attribute economic value I am sure it would be much more than men imagine. I read a news article sometime back that there is a proposal to assign economic value to the homemaker’s job and include it in the GDP of the country.
    When I think of how much my mother has contributed at home so that I could focus on my office work, if I attribute a value to it, I am sure it would be much more than what women earn in office.
    In addition to recognition of the home maker’s contribution there are two issues that affect women. Even in urban, educated families, the home maker does not find time to eat her meal in peace, or take care of her health. She thinks a walk in the park or a health checkup is an indulgence she does not have time for.
    I did a health survey of 50 women of all ages in my locality for my yoga project last year. I was shocked to find that 95 % of the women in their middle age were suffering from stress, some health issue or ailment and felt their energy deplete by evening.
    When I conducted a seven day free yoga workshop for one hour these women felt so relaxed and refreshed that they wondered why they had not done it earlier.
    I would request all women to take care of their health and allot some time for themselves to take up some sort of activity that will help them relax and stay positive. (Not just watching TV) Even half an hour every day in relaxation and rejuvenation – walking, exercise, yoga, meditation can help women overcome stress, enjoy better health and be more positive and confident.
    It is great that young women like you are writing about this and spreading awareness. Hopefully with the help of social media and the online community we would be able to make a difference.
    Best wishes.

    p.s I tried to post a comment twice and got some error. I hope my comment does not come up again and again.

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