When gender based violence erupts on our TV screens, as it did recently with instances of molestation in Bengaluru, we react in shock. What does it say about a society where such acts have become routine? The shell of silence surrounding sexual violence needs to be shattered. As a first step towards a more honest conversation, we bring you “Talking Gender”, a series of articles on the fundamental problems of the collective mindset on gender.
Which is the one performance metric in which India’s numbers are way above developed countries like the USA, the UK, all Western European countries including the Scandinavian do-gooders, and other rich countries like Japan and Australia? If you’ve been reading my recent writing on the topic of being a father with a feminist leaning (read part 1 and part 2 if you missed them) you probably know that this question is a trick question, right? Right.
The performance metric that I asked about is nothing to be proud of, in fact it’s quite the opposite. Somewhat like the pollution density readings that we stare at disaffectedly during the nightly news bulletins, the higher these numbers are the worse the situation is. And the numbers are incredibly high in India.
The difference between the average time per day that Indian women spend doing unpaid domestic work and the time that Indian men spend doing the same kind of tasks is what I was referring to. To put it simply, how much unpaid household work do women do compared to men in our country?
As with many things in India, measuring correctly to get accurate numbers is difficult. The best data that I could find is from 1999. Even that is suspect because this data only measures those household tasks that a “third person could hypothetically be paid to do”. Meaning that if a third person was hired to that work, then it probably didn’t get counted as something that was imbalanced in that household. But even with all these allowances, our numbers are still bad. And I’m pretty sure that if we magically had data for last week, the numbers would still be bad.
Coming in at number 29 among 29 countries where this indicator was measured, Indian men do 300 minutes less than their women counterparts in the household work department. Per day! Just to make sure you understand this: Indian women spend an average of 5 hours more than men every single day doing household work.
I am a beneficiary of this imbalanced system too, most boys and men in urban India are. From an early age, delicious food would miraculously show up in front of me at meal times, dirty clothes would magically become clean and ready for wearing again, and the upkeep of our home happened regularly and efficiently as if it was no work at all! Being one of two brothers, I never even got to experience any discrimination between my sibling and myself; in effect, everyone got a free pass! It was only much later in life, when my mother’s work circumstances required the three male occupants of the house to run it, that I achieved some level of competence about managing a household.
Here’s the thing about housework: nobody enjoys it in and of itself. Unlike other domestic engagements like free play with children or cooking, nothing about housework—not the before, the during, or the afterwards—involves any real pleasure. Not even the highest paid ‘domestic worker’ in the world thinks of housework as something that’s incredibly fun and wishes for it to go on forever. Housework needs to be done and whoever does it, whether it’s the ‘homemaker’ mom or the paid worker, wants to get it done as soon as possible with as little effort as possible. So, there really is no way to sugarcoat the importance of fathers engaging with their children about housework.
Now before you roll your eyes and start moving your mouse pointer to close this tab, I understand that not everyone can do an equitable share of the housework in their own lives beginning tomorrow. But whether we can each reach that ideal end point or not, there are ways in which we can teach our children to be less entitled about housework. As fathers, the least we can do is to help create an environment in our homes where our children, especially our sons, don’t grow up feeling that housework is ‘beneath them’ and done mostly by women. So, this installment intentionally doesn’t have an easy bulleted list of to-do items. Think about how you can do something to address the points that I think we should address as Feminist Fathers.
The most important thing that we can teach our children about housework is respect. Aretha Franklin already said it better than I could ever say it: “All I'm askin' is for a little respect/When you come home/Baby when you come home/Respect.” Whether it’s someone within the family who does the housework or if someone has been hired to do work around the house, children should show respect towards that person for tirelessly doing a job that they would not be able to do every day. And this respect can only be inculcated in children if the adults in the house model such behaviour. Especially in homes where someone is paid to do the housework, it is critical for us fathers to engage with domestic workers equally and respectfully manage their work.
The second most important thing that we can teach our children about housework is gratitude. It’s important to not reduce this gratitude to a cursory, unfeeling “thank you” aimed in the general direction of the doers of the housework, but actually appreciate the assistance. If you pay someone to cook in your house, every time the food is tasty, encourage your children to convey their appreciation to the cook. If children receive help in cleaning up their toys or any other mess they’ve created, encourage them to clearly articulate their thanks for that support. I’ll leave it to you to extrapolate these ideas in age appropriate ways to older children.
Third comes appreciation. This means understanding that housework is boring and repetitive, and doing little things to make the eventual doing of that housework as easy as possible. For example, a secret to washing the dishes faster that I will forever be embarrassed about learning at the age of 30 is to dynamically change the order in which dishes go into the sink as you add each new item. Broader dishes go at the bottom, narrower dishes go above them, making a stack of dishes where water that drips down from hands washed and spoons rinsed cascades evenly over every layer, miraculously soaking all the dishes in the sink and enormously reducing the scrubbing required to get them clean. More no-brainer versions of these simple interventions would include teaching children as young as 4 and 5 to place shoes in their appropriate location rather than fling them just anywhere, put soiled clothes into a bin meant for collecting them or even directly into the washing machine, and of course ‘wind up’ their toys and books each night before going to bed. Ideally, this kind of direction should come from mothers AND fathers.
Lastly, encourage children to do as much of their own housework as they can. And model this behavior yourself. 5-year-old children can wash their own plates and glasses, especially if they are made of steel or otherwise unbreakable. By the age of 10, children can help with sweeping and mopping (or vacuuming) the house, ‘prep’-ping vegetables and produce for cooking, taking care of younger siblings and cousins, and even shopping for essentials from the local shop. And part of this is something that applies to both fathers and mothers: let go! The cleaned plates may not be as fragrant and spotless, the toilet bowls maybe a bit grubbier, and there may be a few corners missed when inexperienced people sweep the house. But if you learn to let go, the overall balance sheet will be healthier even if the individual line items don’t look as stellar.
Scientists are not yet quite sure how long it takes to form a habit. Your children may need as little as 21 days of repetition or as much as a year of coaching to form a habit of sharing the housework. But remember that every day that they don’t, and every day that us fathers do nothing to change it, they are forming a habit of NOT sharing the housework or appreciating the effort that goes behind running a household. So, let’s start that arduous journey away from our world-beating negligence of household responsibilities and make a small step towards evening the odds in our own homes.
Fire up your web browser and open two tabs. On one tab, search for “Indian women doing housework” and on the other search for “Indian men doing housework”. Switch to image searches on both tabs. How many real (not made for commercials or advertisements) photos do you see of actual Indian people doing actual housework in each tab? What does this make you feel? Write in to me at email@example.com.