COVID 19 and Gender Equality : Women’s Unpaid Domestic Labor

The largest source of women’s unpaid labor is domestic work.

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By Maham Abbasi, Copy Edited By Adam Rizvi, New York, TIO:  With the rise of the norm of working from home, employed women in the middle and upper class have had their office work shifted into their households. The veil between the public and the private world has now fallen and women have to simultaneously perform their domestic duties along with their office work. Women now have to face the domestic drudgery from which they had won a break because their economic status allowed them.

The Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development defines domestic labor as time spent doing routine housework, shopping for necessary household goods, child care, tending to the elderly and other household or non-household members, and other unpaid activities related to household maintenance.

The traditional Indian thought of a home almost takes it for granted that certain jobs within the household are to be performed only by women. These tasks can include domestic maintenance, cooking, cleaning, and childcare, while a broader explanation would also include the hours of emotional effort that goes into holding families together and putting up with the ever-existing patriarchal norms of society. 

However, regardless of the number of hours women put into this domestic labor during a day, the work is often disregarded as a set of daily chores and is not valued for in the GDP. Since the work done at home does not necessarily generate products and services for the market, economists often ignore it in their calculations and the employment metrics, the result being that a massive portion of the work done by women goes unrecognized as labor and is treated as a duty.

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 Even when both men and women perform domestic labor, there is often a gendered division with women taking up tasks of cleaning more often. A man in our society is free from having to perform domestic labor until he chose to do it, especially since unpaid domestic work is not attached to his biological being. Since they are still carrying on with their work from the comforts of their home, and are therefore earning, they are not bound to perform domestic labor in the lockdown. This gendered division of labor can be seen in the behavior patterns of adolescents and even children: young boys are told 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 labor can be traced back to the socialization process.

Girls are given several lessons on cooking, cleaning, and taking care of siblings as they grow up. In most cases, the same does not apply to boys, who are instead encouraged to focus on their academic and extracurricular activities. Boys and men are often not trained to perform domestic labor because of factors such as socialization, son preference, and favoritism in India.

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Another crucial task of women, expected especially from mothers, is to tend to the family’s mental and emotional well-being, ensuring a positive atmosphere of the household through the ongoing pandemic. Many children and adolescents are suffering mentally and emotionally and even have academic anxiety since online education is still a very new concept to get comfortable with. The mother is expected to keep the spirits of the household high. She has to encourage her teenage children to keep studying and engaging in meaningful activities, and perhaps even perform more than usual sexual labor for her husband.

 All of this increases the already existing mental pressures on a woman, who is working hard to keep her family’s mental health problems at ease while she suffers silently, and chose to keep a smiling face throughout.

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In this lockdown, many employers have refused to allow their domestic help to come to work,  majorly women, and have denied them their monthly wages. Mostly, the domestic workers live in camps in the city or the slums away from their families. The lack of steady income makes these workers to constantly live in fear of indigence 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. 

 With a large number of people occupying a small space with poor hygienic conditions, whether in slums or camps, their living conditions render them particularly vulnerable to the disease. They are unable to take proper health precautions and measures, due to their inability to access sanitary kits. Government aid has proven to be tricky, causing the working-class to perish of exhaustion and hunger in greater numbers than of the COVID-19 virus.

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 The physical, emotional, and sexual labor sought during this pandemic from middle-class women, more than their usual load, is also demanded of working-class women, who have to simultaneously live the pressure of meeting the requirements of basic amenities such as food, water, and shelter.

Caroline Whaley, the co-founder of a consultancy company in the UK, says the pandemic makes gender inequality worse. Women from different backgrounds all around the world won’t disagree.


Women seem to be disproportionately carrying the extra burden. In addition to their doing more of the unpaid work at home, their economically valuable work outside the home is suffering, as they are forced to substitute unpaid work for paid work.

This International Women’s Day, New York Times looked at how much women would have made last year if they earned minimum wage for their unpaid work. The value of this shadow labor is staggering: $10.9 trillion, according to an analysis by Oxfam. It exceeds the combined revenue of the 50 largest companies on last year’s Fortune Global 500 list, including Walmart, Apple, and Amazon.

Equal work opportunity cannot be just about increasing pay for women, or increasing their participation in the workforce, but about redefining the popular patriarchal definition of work. This will un-gender domestic and care work, minimizing women’s work and improving their quality of life.

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For a society that has long shied away from acknowledging care work, COVID-19 might be an opportunity to have it recognized and valued in the household, in the community and in national accounts for what it is – hard work that fuels all working economies and stands as its backbone!

To gain real equality, unpaid domestic work needs to be legitimized and given rightful recognition. Only then can we expect equal participation in the workforce, and the household.

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Compiled and Curated by Maham Abbasi




Maham Abbasi

Maham Abbasi is currently pursuing Public Relations at the York University in Canada. She holds a Master's Degree in Women's Studies from the Aligarh Muslim University, India. Maham is a feminist at heart who revels in critiquing gendered societal constructs, she has been working on Period Poverty and Women's Health and Leadership through her projects, The No Shame and Aykaa Home Decor. She likes to wear different caps in her professional life and works extensively for women’s rights and issues.

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