My apartment complex, of about 700 households, is a vibrant centre of commerce. At any point in time there are raw materials being procured, goods being produced, and transactions being completed. All in the intimacy of homes and the neighbourhood. An app that enabled people to buy and sell meals within the complex has got off to a flying start. In two months it has about 25 food entrepreneurs registered with estimated income anywhere between Rs. 5,000/- to Rs.60,000/-. Then there are the Art teachers, Science tutors, Music teachers, Healers, Counsellors and many more that I am yet to discover. Most of these entrepreneurs are highly educated women who, some might say, ought to be in the formal workforce.
World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2017 places India at 108 out of 144 countries on its Gender Gap Index. The report benchmarks 144 countries on their progress towards gender parity on a scale from 0 (imparity) to 1 (parity) across four thematic dimensions (See accompanying Figure and Table 1). One of the primary reasons for India’s poor performance was the extremely low participation of women in the economy and the low wages they received (the other being India’s abysmal record in ensuring health and survival of its women).
As a woman in India, whose job has entailed going into homes and hearing women from all strata share their lives, none of what this report states comes as a surprise. Yet, it makes for deeply uncomfortable and unhappy reading. One of the figures in the report that stood out was the disparity in ‘proportion of unpaid work per day’ — for men it was 11.7% while for women it was 65.6%. The rise of home-based work by educated middle class women is perhaps an attempt to bridge this gap. There are other reasons why this trend of commerce in the neighbourhood must be encouraged. It is sustainable, both in terms of environmental sustainability as well as potential of the business to be sustained over a longer term.
Perhaps this trend of homemakers working from home and earning incomes needs to be encouraged as much as the focus on drawing women to the formal workforce. While the case for economic freedom and economic contribution is undeniable, most women in India have to jump through hoops to be able to work outside homes. Some barriers are societal (social norms around role of women and men), some are economic (poor wages, especially for women with limited education) and others are structural (lack of employment opportunities with increased mechanisation and slow growth of the manufacturing sector). However, most women that I have spoken to want to work — some want to do it outside home, and a majority want to do it from their homes. A woman in a Kutch village shared how it was important for her to get paid work at home as she is not allowed to step outside to work. A NIFT graduate, now in Bangalore declared the battle to manage home and work pointless and quit the workforce.
The female participation in the labour force (both formal and informal) has fallen from 35% in 2005 to 26% now. This, while more and more girls (with higher levels of educational attainment) have continued to get added to the workforce. The number of working-age women is 470 million as per estimates (Economist, Why India needs women to work). That means about 348 million women, who could be economically productive are unable to do so.
So, when I see Rajma Chawal or the Wholegrain Dosa Batter listed on a local food app, at prices comparable to a decent restaurant or well-known Brands, it makes my heart sing. There are millions of housewives across India, creating their identity, earning their own money and I root for them and give them my custom as much as possible.
This article was first published in December 2018 on Linkedin. https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/housewives-rise-monika-gera/