Are stay-at-home mothers or homemakers economically non-productive?

working motherIndia has traditionally been a patriarchal society with the man being the head and the leading earning member of the family, and the woman providing the home support back-up services. Although this scenario is changing in the 21st century with many urban women going to work, but in a largely rural India, a vast majority of women continue to remain stay-at-home mothers or homemakers.

A recent study conducted by Health Bridge, a global NGO called “Women’s Economic Contribution through their Unpaid Work: The Case of India” came out with some startling facts. The report concluded that a woman in India typically works 16 hours a day. A large part of the responsibility of household chores lies with the woman, including the responsibility of tutoring their children at home. Rural women perform a wider range of tasks compared to urban women. Finally, the report made a concrete estimate of the economic value of “unpaid household work” performed by women throughout India and valued it at US$ 612.8 billion a year! (1)

At a time when the findings of this report have been creating ripples in the Indian social sector and with women welfare NGOs in particular, the Supreme Court of India added more legitimacy to this debate. The Supreme Court in a landmark move favouring women’s economic liberation in India, has asked the Indian Parliament to re-consider its parameters of national Census that places homemakers in the same category as beggars, prisoners and prostitutes that are regarded as “economically non-productive” sections of the society. The Supreme Court went on to suggest that the Parliament must consider enacting a law to evaluate the work done by homemakers. It expressed its shock at the Census categorization of homemakers as economically unproductive and called it an “insensitive approach indicative of a strong gender bias against women.” (2)

Homemaker women in India have been traditionally engaged in large number in production of various goods and services that are consumed at the household level, and not sold in the marketplace. Rural women in particular make a substantial productive contribution at different levels, including helping with agricultural production activities such as sowing, harvesting and transplantation. They also traditionally tend to the cattle and perform the task of cooking and delivering food to the men of the house during the agricultural season. Water and fuel gathering tasks are also typically performed by the women in rural regions. (3)

If the census criterion of the Indian Parliament is assumed to be correct, it stands to classify nearly 36 crore women as per the 2001 census as non-workers. Whereas, the fact remains that homemakers have a tough job at hand, where there are no fixed working hours and no holidays and no monetary rewards. The noted environmentalist Rashmi Mayur points out that, "The kitchen environment is the most crucial in victimizing women. Almost all women in India spend a considerable amount of their life in the kitchen. On an average, a woman spends 73,000 hours in the kitchen." (4)

It is now up to the Indian lawmakers and political parties to evaluate the suggestions of the Supreme Court seriously and make necessary amendments to the parliamentary Act to recognize the economic value of women homemakers in rural as well as urban India. A clear mechanism to economically quantify the services rendered by homemakers to the society will go a long way in establishing gender equality and recognize the economic worth of the Indian housewife.


- Vikas Vij (views expressed in the article are that of the author)