On 30th January, WHO declared Coronavirus (or Covid-19) a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC). In India, an initial lockdown was declared on March 24th, 2020 following the twenty-four hour Janata Curfew on 21st March. This led to the closing-down of major educational, commercial and transportation sectors, leaving many migrant workers stranded without an immediate place of shelter or source of income.
Managerial, executive and other desk-jobs have been primarily shifted to the homes of the employees, but factory workers are still expected to show up to keep production rolling. Educational institutions have shifted to online classes and students are expected to submit assignments via email. There is a deep class-division at work in this pandemic, between those who can afford to have internet, a safe home environment, and basic necessities and those who do not have shelter, are struggling to meet daily needs and are obliged to keep working in these conditions.
With the emergence of the norm of working from home, employed middle- and upper-class women have had their office work shifted into their households. The clear division of the outside and the domestic world has now collapsed and women have to simultaneously perform their domestic duties alongside their 9 to 5 office work. These women (working or otherwise) are now having to face the drudgery linked to domestic chores from which they had obtained a respite because their economic standing allowed them to hire a substitute.
A man who is the sole breadwinner is free from having to perform domestic labour, a condition that often extends to unemployed men by virtue of their gender and its associations with earning money. Since they are still carrying on with their work from the comfort of their home, and are therefore earning, they are not obliged to perform domestic labour in the lockdown, especially since unpaid domestic work is not attached to their biological being. This gendered division of labour can be seen in the behaviour of adolescents and even children: boys have been observed to perform fewer domestic tasks than girls of the same age. The very idea that men or boys do not need to, or have to, perform domestic labour can be traced back to the socialization process, which it in turn influences.
A girl child is given several lessons on cooking, cleaning and taking care of younger siblings as she grows up. The age at which these tasks are expected of girls varies from household to household, and their nature varies in accordance to socio-economic standing, but the bare fact of these responsibilities remains largely unaltered. In most cases, the same does not apply to boys, who are instead encouraged to focus on their academic and extracurricular activities, or expected to perform manual labour. Boys and men are often not trained to perform domestic labour because of socialization, son preference and favouritism.
There is often a gendered division even when both men and women perform domestic labour, with girls/women taking up tasks of cleaning more often, given the fact that it has to deal with dirt. In a conversation with my friend’s mother on what domestic tasks would look like when I get married, she agreed that an equal division of labour is justified, but I must dust and clean the house, while my husband can cook, because it “looks bad” to see the man of the house dusting.
Another essential task of women, especially mothers, is to tend to the household’s mental and emotional well-being, ensuring that everyone stays positive through the pandemic. Many children and adolescents are suffering mentally and emotionally because of the lockdown: whether from cabin fever or academic anxiety. The mother is expected to keep the spirits of the household high. She has to invent new games for the children to keep them distracted, and encourage her teenage children to keep studying and engaging in meaningful activities, and perhaps even perform (more than usual) sexual labour for her husband.
Following the rise in the reported number of domestic abuse cases, one must question how many women have to engage in unwanted sexual activities, believing that it is their duty to satisfy their husbands sexually. All of this increases the already existing mental load of a woman, working hard to keep at bay her family’s mental health problems, while she suffers silently, and with a smile pasted on her face.
In this lockdown, many employers have refused to allow their domestic help to come to work, and have denied them their monthly wages. Conversely, there are employers who are obliging their domestic help to live out the lockdown in the employers’ households. Even without such explicit coercion, many domestic workers live in slums and camps in the city, away from their families; transportation and communication having been shut down, they are unable to return to or communicate with their families. The loss of steady income causes these workers to constantly live in fear of destitution and homelessness, as they might be kicked out of their houses because of their inability to pay rent, nor can they consistently secure daily sustenance.
Their living conditions, whether in slums or camps, render them particularly vulnerable to the disease, with a large number of people occupying a small space with poor hygienic conditions, and little to no supply of running water. They are unable to take proper health precautions and safety measures, due to their inability to access sanitary kits—which are both relatively expensive and rare—and the flawed information disseminated to them about the virus and its communicability. Government aid—promised in excess of delivery—has proven to be unreliable, causing the working-class to perish of exhaustion and starvation in greater numbers than of the covid-19 virus.
Their well-being and safety is not a priority, as physical distancing is only applicable to the ones who can afford it. Further, the physical, emotional and sexual labour sought during this pandemic from middle-class women, in excess of their usual load, is also demanded of working-class women, who have to simultaneously contend with meeting the bare requirements of food, water and shelter.
Any excess that aids in the maintenance of the life or happiness of her family is usually extracted from what would have been the fair share of the adult women of the household in an equitable division of resources. While the pandemic and associated lockdown have stretched these resources thinly, the possessions and labour of adult and minor women, and especially of mothers, have long been constructed as in service of the well-being of the family. As with other social norms and inequalities, the lockdown has only cast into inescapable light what had previously been normalised.
Arhita Biswas completed her Masters in Sociology from JNU and is a co-founder of Spriha Society, a non-profitable organization working for health and education of women and children. She is interested in community health as a social phenomenon. You can find her on Facebook and Instagram.
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