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Singular troubles

J Devika | Updated on March 10, 2018

Cover story: Those blaming the mothers for the rising number of child abuse cases in poor families are blind to the fact that many of these women do not have the resources — better pay and work conditions among them — to afford a better home environment. Photo: G Ramakrishna   -  The Hindu

The resource-intense nuclear family weighs down on the single woman and mother, who often pays a heavy price for a modicum of ‘security’ and ‘stability’

Asha* stood near her modest home, wringing water from the washing. I watched as she hung it up to dry — her faded nighties, the children’s cheap clothes, and the designer boxers that belonged to her ‘husband’. The washing line revealed the pattern of resource distribution in her household. Asha earns a living doing domestic work in four middle-class houses. She has managed to get for the house a TV, fridge, and LPG connection with the credit that her self-help group provides; she is still paying off these debts. Asha’s first husband left her when the modest dowry from her mother, a cashew-worker, ran out. She was left to fend for herself and two children. And, in the locality she lived in, it was hard for a young woman to stay safe without a man. Six months ago, she found a man who moved in with her. “He doesn’t drink,” she told me. But six months after, I could still see no improvement to her household. He was no different from the first: irregularly employed even while commanding high wages whenever he had work. But he still enjoyed a much better standard of living than Asha and her family.

This domestic scene, in which both partners are economically insecure but the woman subsidises the man at the cost of her children’s welfare and security, while he enjoys economies of scale, is steadily becoming a global one. In other words, the nuclear conjugal unit as a social institution assuring long-term social stability and economic security is becoming increasingly unviable for the poor.

Compared with other family forms, nuclear families are costlier on every count: they require more financial, emotional, and labour resources. The claim that the patrifocal nuclear family was the best institution to produce the ideal subjects of capitalist modernity was propagated by colonialism. This is a resource-intense responsibility. Children require much greater attention both within domestic space and outside; the family is to be sustained totally by the labour of the conjugal couple; modern domesticity calls for a certain minimum of privacy, consumption, and leisure, all of which come with a price tag. It is not a coincidence that the proponents of the patrifocal nuclear family, including the missionaries and the modern-educated reformist middle-class elite in India, never failed to advance thrift and frugality as not merely practical attitudes but also unquestionable values underlying modern conjugality. In practical contexts, the stability of the modern conjugal unit was bolstered by dowry payments and State welfare for the poor, wherever political movements of the poor were stronger.

In Asha’s case, the dowry was too meagre to keep her husband, who did not earn enough to sustain his growing family, in the arrangement for long. Even as Asha struggled to feed, clothe, and educate her children, she managed to put together the material trappings of modern domesticity with the help of cheap loans she got through the State Poverty Alleviation Mission’s self-help groups. This precarious stability, however, is under constant threat from the ‘husband’, who now consumes a considerable share of her energy, time, and material resources. Her statement that he is a teetotaller was another way of saying that he might not deplete her resources over and above whatever is his due by his patriarchal right as ‘husband’. Seen another way, she is willing to pay a price for intimacy, and a modicum of security from the harassment a poor, single woman inevitably faces in a patriarchal set-up. She and her children are, in other words, walking a tightrope.

This is why I can no longer tolerate snide remarks that the apparent increase in child abuse in poor families is due to the fecklessness of the mothers. Our order imposes ‘compulsory asexuality’ on single mothers as a way of locking down resources ostensibly for the welfare of their children. Working-class single women cannot comply with this perhaps because the harassment they face every day and the ever-lingering threat of sexual violence is such that a ‘husband’ becomes necessary for security, however illusory that may be. And maybe they are not shy of seeking sexual intimacy, which is rightfully their due as human beings.

If our middle-class moralists are serious about preventing child abuse in poor families, they ought to improve poor, single women’s wages, working conditions, caregiving support systems, and social membership. This, they don’t care about. All the more reason, one could say, that their incessant discoursing on the ‘decline of family values’ among the poor rings hollow and hypocritical.

(*Name changed to protect identity)

J Devika is a historian and critic based in Thiruvananthapuram

Published on August 18, 2017

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