The bias against housewives
Are the lives of housewives cheaper than those of their husbands in India? Going by the evidence, yes.
Families of housewives who die in road accidents end up receiving less compensation than those of working men. In a recent case, the Motor Accidents' Tribunal more than halved the compensation the family of a deceased homemaker was entitled to.
This, despite the husband's plea that she was earning money by working from home, and that her death had led to the family losing emotional support, love and affection.
Last week, the Supreme Court ordered higher compensation, after the husband challenged the appeal. In an emphatic and sensitive judgement it said:
The gratuitous services rendered by the wife with true love and affection to the children and her husband and managing the household affairs cannot be equated with the services rendered by others.
A wife/mother does not work by the clock. She is in constant attendance of the family throughout the day and night unless she is employed and is required to attend the employer's work for particular hours.
She takes care of all the requirements of husband and children including cooking of food, washing of clothes, etc. She teaches small children and provides invaluable guidance to them for their future life.
The odds are heavily stacked against women in India anyway. It remains a nation of stay-at-home wives, though more women are going out to work. Housewives play a key role in keeping families together in a country with virtually no government-aided social security. A 2008 study showed barely 13% of women - between 18 and 59 years - work.
Only 18% of women work in the organised sector, the majority in farms. Just 10% of seats in parliament are held by women. Only 9% of companies have any participation by women in ownership. No wonder India ranked a lowly 116 in the 179-country Gender Development Index in 2006.
Last week, the Supreme Court found that the bias extended to the country's census. It said that the census appeared to club women who were doing household work, looking after children, fetching water, collecting firewood with beggars, prostitutes and prisoners who are "not engaged in economically productive work".
That's about 367 million "non-working" women, according to the 2001 census. Analysts say such systemic, institutional gender bias in a mainly patriarchal society will take decades to erode.
To be true, stay-at-home wives are becoming rarer - and having a harder time - all over the world. Peter Letmark, a journalist in Sweden who is working on a series on 21st century parents, says that they are a "near extinct species" in his country. "The few who still do exist, he says, "don't really dare to go public with it." In neighbouring Norway, membership of a housewives' association has plummeted to 5,000 from 60,000.
In the US, according to census findings, stay-at-home wives are usually younger, less educated and with lower family incomes. Katrin Bennhold, a journalist, recently wrote that social engineering to encourage more working mothers is a "blunt tool, and some worry that the freedom of working mothers has come at the expense of making outcasts of a minority who want to do things differently".
Many economists believe that the value of unpaid work is sometimes more than that of the manufacturing sector. Writing about the decline in real wages in the US, economist Paul Krugman said: "I don't mean to imply that there's something wrong with more women working, but a gain in family income that occurs because a spouse goes to work isn't the same thing as a wage increase. In particular it may carry hidden costs that offset some of the gains in money income, such as reduced time to spend on housework, greater dependence on prepared food, day-care expenses, and so on".
Why isn't the contribution housewives make to the economy computed and shown up to the world? Why not include unpaid housework in the GDP? As Bennhold says: "Working mothers have a stake in this, too: They still do most of the unpaid work in their homes." All over the world.