The Supreme Court has upheld the economic role of a home-maker in a compensation case.

“Women’s rights in Sweden are so advanced that nobody wants to get married”, lamented a Swedish medical doctor who met me while she was visiting India.

Elite and NGO women in our society, influenced by Western thinking, focus on independence rather than inter-dependence.

‘Independence’ in this case centres around economic independence, and apparently excludes the services of a homemaker, who is dependent on her husband and other family members. The homemaker’s independence and status is compromised in a situation where economic contribution, narrowly defined, is all that is valued.

But, the Supreme Court has highlighted the true contribution of homemakers, which all Indian women, and certainly the Government, should take note of.

A lower court downgraded compensation to a homemaker on the premise that she was not an economic contributor.

The Supreme Court (Arun Kumar Agarwal vs National Insurance Company) enhanced the compensation given to a homemaker with well-researched findings that a homemaker’s contribution was substantive.

As of 2001, about 37 crore women in India were classified in the Census of India, 2001, as ‘non-workers’ and placed in the category of beggars, prostitutes and prisoners, a status condemned by the Supreme Court.

The Government was quick to reject such a classification, but admitted that they were placed under the broad head ‘non-workers’, as they are not engaged in any economically productive work.

Stunted outlook

Such a classification betrays a colonial perception of Indian womanhood, a blatant bias against women and outright gender discrimination.

Let’s move on to international developments. The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (in its general recommendation No. 17) deals with the measurement and quantification of the unremunerated domestic activities of women and their recognition in the Gross National Product.

On July 9, 1993, India ratified it, signed it, but till date there is no evaluation of a homemaker’s services. The UNICEF in 2000 noted that “unpaid care-work is the foundation of human experience”.

Quoting this, the apex court emphasised: “The care-work is that which is done by a woman as a mother and definitely in India, the woman herself will be the last person to give this role an economic value, given the social concept of the role of a mother”.

Article 36 of the Constitution of Cambodia — a country that is much smaller than India — recognises the value of home-makers, but India continues to ignore domestic and global norms, in spite of a clear Constitutional mandate to eschew discrimination on grounds of sex in Article 15(1).

Invaluable vs valueless

Household duties such as cooking, cleaning of utensils, looking after children, fetching water, collecting firewood, or agricultural activities or support services such as sowing, harvesting, transplanting and tending cattle and by cooking and delivering the food to those on the field during the agriculture season, constitute work that can be valued in monetary terms. These services are consumed at the family level.

It is possible to apply opportunity cost in valuing homemaker’s services. For instance, the monetary value of cooking for family members could be assessed in terms of what it would cost to hire a cook or to purchase ready cooked food, or by assessing how much money could be earned if the food cooked for the family were to be sold in the locality.

Alternatively, the time taken for homemakers to produce these services could be compared with the time that is taken to produce goods and services that are commercially viable.

The highest court of the land refers to Uncovering Women's Work by economist Ms Jayati Ghosh, which cites National Sample Survey data to show that “57 per cent of rural women and 19 per cent of urban women were engaged in the free collection of fuelwood for household consumption.

Activities related to food processing, such as husking and grinding grain, were engaged in by around 15 per cent of women.

Other unpaid activities, such as maintaining kitchen gardens and looking after livestock and poultry, also occupied a majority of women — 60 per cent in rural areas and 24 per cent in urban areas.

These are all economic activities which in developed societies are typically recognised as such because they are increasingly delegated by women and performed through paid contracts.”

The modest estimates of household work performed by women throughout India are more than $612.8 billion per year! (Evangelical Social Action Forum and Health Bridge, page 17).

The non-financial benefits of home-makers are the time spent in attending to children, family members, and the emotional-quotient, of traditional parenting and so on, which cannot be precisely measured.

The Supreme Court finally documented that services rendered by women in the household sustain a supply of labour to the economy and keep human societies going.

If their contribution is taken for granted, this may escalate unforeseen costs, in terms of deterioration of human capabilities and the social fabric. This lack of recognition plays a role in women's high rate of poverty and social oppression.

Local and global laws require a proper recognition of a homemaker’s role.

The Government of India, in spite of direction from the highest Court of the land and Constitutional back-up, remains mired in colonial thinking.

It is time Indian women’s organisations highlighted the role of home-makers, both in financial and non-financial terms. Will they?

(The author is a corporate lawyer and a fellow of ICAI)

(This article was published on July 19, 2012)
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