The Lockdown Has Done Women’s Labour a Double Disservice

Through the Lens of Our Practice

The lockdown exposed many of the gaps and faultlines in existing practices of urban governance and planning. While the grave crisis of migrants and other vulnerable sections of the urban population required an immediate response, the lockdown also pushed researchers to reflect on their own long-term practice and respond to the situation from that vantage point.  As HUL coordinated migrant relief, designed communication materials and put together useful data for the pandemic response, members of the HUL team also composed responses to the situation on the ground from the lens of their own practice and on-going research. We present those articulations in this series of blog posts.

(Image Courtesy: Meenakshi Meera)

The Lockdown Has Done Women’s Labour a Double Disservice

(This piece was written in response to part of a story titled  ‘To cut or not? Bengaluru residents in fix over salary of domestic helps’ published on 3rd May 2020 in the Times of India, Bengaluru Edition)

Bong Joon-Ho’s Oscar-winning film Parasite is a compelling satire of 21st century class relations. Interestingly, class-conflict in the film pivots not around relationships in the factory or the office, but within the home. The crafty Kims interpellate the lives of the wealthy Park family posing as highly qualified tutors, chauffeurs and housekeepers – occupations deeply embedded within the sprawling informal economies characteristic of 21st century metropolitan life. The film captures with clarity the thin, and easily blurred, lines between intimacy, familiarity and hierarchy that pervades these modes of labour. The Kims must be cheerful, personable, and willing participants in the domestic life of the Parks, but without ever crossing “the line” policed with quiet vigilance by the Park family patriarch

Affluent Indians have long relied upon such forms of labour in the social reproduction of life within the household; and perhaps never before has this way of life been threatened or undermined more than it has been during the lockdown.

 The responses have been of different kinds. Ranging from facetious to thoughtful. While some have demanded better legislative safeguards for domestic work, others have responded with staggering naivete. A story on domestic work during the lockdown titled ‘To cut or not? Bengaluru residents in fix over the salary of domestic helps’  run by the Bengaluru edition of the Times of India on 3rd May 2020 featured a substory titled ‘With Wives Burdened, Men Want Helpers Back’. The piece manages to pull off the impressive feat of trivialising both domestic work and the reality of domestic violence in Indian households within the span of 150 words. Men in Bengaluru households, the piece informs us, are desperate for domestic workers to resume work during the lockdown in order to ease the burden of domestic chores that has fallen on the shoulders of their wives. Wherefrom this demand, one wonders? Is it because these men for the first time in their lives are having to acknowledge the immense labour that goes into running a household, or that domestic workers, the majority of whom are women, are some of the most vulnerable people in the urban workforce? Hardly. The reason, the piece informs us, is that these hapless men are terrorised by the foul tempers of their overworked wives. This is hard to swallow in a country known for its high rates of domestic violence, of which women are largely at the receiving end. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-4) 2015-16, 30% of women between the ages of 15-49 in India have experienced physical or sexual violence at home at one point or another. Among married women subjected to abuse at home, over 80% are subjected to physical, sexual, or emotional abuse at the hands of their husbands. 

Intimate partner violence directed at women has only increased during the lockdown because of a combination of self-isolation and economic and health-related anxieties. Isolated and confined to the house, women’s ability to report instances of violence and abuse is also severely restricted. The National Commission of Women (NCW), as well as several women’s rights organisations, have noted the rise in reported instances of domestic violence in India since the start of the lockdown. Given that instances of domestic violence are typically underreported and this is more so the case during a lockdown, the reality is likely much worse than what figures indicate. 

What becomes evident in the men’s plaint is the dependence of middle and upper-middle-class households on this labour in maintaining functional households. Yet domestic workers are some of the most underpaid workers within the informal economy, and frequently subjected to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse by their employers. In the absence of legislative protection or robust workers’ organisations, domestic workers rely on personal relationships with their employers, often fraught and almost always uneven, in times of crisis. The prevailing state of affairs is produced by the feminisation of domestic chores as ‘women’s work’, invisibilizing the economic dimension of such work. Work classified as ‘domestic’ is assigned to women of the household and then cascades down to domestic workers. This is where patriarchy and exploitative labour practices meet. What place does violence hold in this structure? Perhaps the bitter truth is that violence – systemic or individuated, physical or mental – is one of the instruments through which this state of affairs is normalised and reproduced. Making this into a story about hapless put-upon men, then, is an egregious misrepresentation of the reality of violence in Indian households. 

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