When the countrywide Lockdown to combat COVID 19 was declared from March 25th, an interesting thing happened. The tables got turned on the typical Indian social set up. For once it wasn’t just the Indian housewife staying at home but the Indian male, the “bread earner” of the house whose socially decreed domain was the world outside. The woman has been conventionally closeted indoors, after all the home and the hearth needed to be looked after and the women’s “honour” protected. But let’s keep that for later.
With the home dynamics changing, albeit for a 21-day period, several things changed. For the majority of housewives, the “work” burden increased manifold. The man being at home all day means incessant “demands” for cooked food round the clock and more household chores. A situation made more untenable without the usual household help – the cook and domestic helper.
The condition of the domestic help in her own home is a far more distressing affair exacerbated by the poverty and the lack of rations. In both cases, there is minimal or zero help coming from the male member of the household. With children not going to school, and stuck indoors, the demands on the housewife are unimaginable.
A lady teacher who is neck deep in work, not teaching from home but in “housework” complains, “The husband and the kids want four meals a day including the tea time snacks!” Adding wistfully, “At this rate, I will need a vacation by the time this lockdown ends.”In reality, she knows, she will have to be “back at work” with overloaded teaching schedules, once schools reopen.
The “few” hours of me –time that the housewife usually used to get with the husband and the kids away from home, have now translated into backbreaking hours of never ending housework.
For those men, who have been compelled to move office space into home and as per current jargon Working From Home (WFH), everything is expected to be as it used be on any ‘normal’ day sans the lockdown ie. ready meals, washed clothes, and clean and quiet surroundings. So obviously the child rearing burden sans the school schedule, falls on the woman.
Whether the WFH man, assists with household chores and cooking on the weekends, depends entirely on individual temperament. For education and literacy have nothing to do, with men sharing equal work burden at home with their wives. The most “progressive” and “intellectual” of them, often have the most sexist attitude to helping their wives, sisters or mother.
And what about the “Working” woman who is also doing WFH in this lockdown period? She has to transform overnight into a multi- tasking superwoman. Finish the cooking, cleaning, washing routine single handedly before she logs in to work. With her loyal allies the domestic helps, not in the picture, the otherwise “regular” workday becomes double jeopardy. Should she be among the few who have partners in the truest sense of the term, sharing the workload, the lockdown appears to be a “different” experience and not an unrelenting nightmare.
Its not uncommon to overhear women speaking on their cellphones in the balcony, “You don’t know the sleepless nights I’ve had”, possibly to a close friend or confidant.
The WFH mom, as another discerning observer pointed out, is getting a raw deal during this Lockdown period especially with additional work pressure and demanding bosses with no empathy for their home situation. In several cases, the work –home balance has completely gone awry with employers seeing no reason why the employee cannot put in the extra hours considering she’s “at home”.
If any of this appears exaggerated or prejudiced, then the reader has a blinkered vision of Indian society and Indian homes where the woman can step out of the home to work but can’t in any scenario step away from housework. The male taking part in the housework, is still an exception, a novelty.
What being cooped up in homes 24 x7 has meant, is also a rise in domestic abuse and violence. Women in abusive relationships are facing the risk of violence at the slightest pretext, round the clock with no reprieve. Domestic violence cases have been on the rise, globally according to the latest reports. India is no exception save for the fact that its going unreported and unaddressed.
The National Commission of Women NCW has received a mere 58 complaints through email during the lockdown period, but the NCW admits that the actual numbers are certainly higher. With the law enforcement authorities and NGOs preoccupied with handling the pandemic, domestic violence is least of anyone’s concerns. For women even in the most desperate scenarios, a lockdown means there is little scope of alternative shelter.
Domestic Abuse Statistics India - A Look At Some
- Crime Statistics in 2016 show total of 7,621 cases of dowry deaths were reported in India
- 3,78,277 cases of crimes against women were reported across the country in 2018 as per NCRB data
- In 94% cases, offenders know the rape survivors
For the lower income households, the lockdown has meant a far greater struggle for the women to feed her hungry family. Without the “luxury” of stocking up on essentials, the challenge of procuring food every single day with disrupted supply linesand over exceeding demand, has made the lives of these women that much more difficult. More than the virus, keeping hunger at bay is a far greater challenge for them. Says Malti a domestic help in Bangalore, “I do not know how I am going to feed my family during this time. The little money that we had is over. My husband is a daily wage labourer. I dare not step outside for fear of the cops who are beating us at any given opportunity and storing rations is not an option. My child has had no milk in the past one week.”
Again it is the women in these households, who are more vulnerable and prone to domestic abuse and violence.
Indian society, irrespective of the class or strata, loves to “deify” women with nomenclatures like “Annapurna” and “Lakshmi”. Even in times of curfew and lockdown, women are miraculously expected to provide food for their families and an inability to do so, is immediately translated into the “failure” of the women to be divinely “economical” and self -sufficient.
In a deeply patriarchal society like ours, times of crisis such as the present only exacerbate the challenges faced by women “locked-down” in their homes.
Kavita Chowdhury is a senior journalist and Adjunct faculty at Asian College of Journalism.