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  • Antara Keswani


Updated: Feb 24, 2022

Abstract:This paper aims to highlight the gender inequalities of unpaid domestic work in India. Due to societal norms and gender stereotypes, unpaid domestic work continues to remain a woman’s prerogative. We continue to see how domestic work remains invisible along with its invisible workers - women and is very conveniently left out of the economy of the country since it is difficult to measure it. This paper, therefore argues for the need to recognize, measure and value women’s unpaid domestic work to address the gender inequalities in employment and empowerment sectors.

Keywords: gender, unpaid domestic work, inequality, 3R model


Unpaid work is a vital aspect of the economy of a country and has significant implications on the social well-being of individuals and communities. Although it is difficult to fit unpaid work into a particular definition, it essentially refers to the non-remunerated services provided for domestic or household chores like cooking and cleaning, care-work which includes looking after children or elderly, sick or disabled people who require help or care, and any other voluntary service provided to households and communities for free.

Despite the importance attached to unpaid domestic work, it essentially remains invisible and unrecognized - The UN System of National Accounts (SNA) postulates unpaid care or domestic work as non-SNA or Extended-SNA work which means that this work is not accounted for as part of countries’ GDP. In India’s case too, the Central Statistical Organization (CSO) excludes unpaid domestic and care work in the NSSO Data and India’s Census. A probable cause for excluding unpaid domestic work out of the economy could be the difficulty of measuring and monetizing it, and this is primarily the reason it is left out of policy agendas.

Gendered Dimensions of Unpaid Work - Statistics, Causes, and Implications All work is gendered, and so is unpaid work around the globe. Women remain at the forefront of unpaid domestic work performed globally and in India. It is alarming to note that in India, women spend 352 minutes per day on unpaid domestic and care work, and on the other hand, men only spend 51.8 minutes. The World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021 saw India slipping by 28 places to rank 140th out of 156 countries. One of the drivers of the rank decline was a marked reduction in “women’s labour force participation rate”, falling from 24.8% to 22.3% from last year. Moreover, the Indian Pilot Time Use Survey showed that India had the highest gender gap in the time spent on unpaid care work. The Social Institutions and Gender Index (SIGI) which measures the discriminatory and prejudiced social institutions within countries puts India in the “medium” category which points to the substantial gender gaps in unpaid domestic work in India. These statistical figures show the alarming unequal division of unpaid work in India.

In such a situation, it is important to analyze the causes for this gendered dimension of unpaid domestic work. The social cause stands out as a primary reason for women’s absolute presence in domestic labour. The societal norms and patriarchal structures regulate the allocation of power and work in households. In almost all households, it is the women who perform domestic chores and care-work; while men only help women performing those duties, but do not hold primary responsibility. The traditional gender roles and beliefs enforce the idea of domestic work as women’s responsibility while working for pay is seen as a masculine task.

Because of several restrictions on women’s mobility, lack of education, training for organized paid work, and inability to outsource child-minding services in most households, women then have to prefer domestic work. Therefore, women’s unique and singular responsibility in domestic work and dependence on the male wage both showcase the skewed gender relations in domestic care work.

Hence, what are the implications of this unequal division of unpaid work on women? It is crucial to realize that most women perform unpaid work due to pressure from society and its patriarchal structures and not out of personal choice. Women are generally labeled as home-makers and their work remains unrecognized, unacknowledged, and invisible. Women’s work also remains undervalued because society has a predetermined notion that women are supposed to perform domestic care work. It is this lack of recognition that reinforces gender inequalities in households.

At this point, I must highlight that not all women see domestic work as a constraint or a burden, and might prefer domestic work, even if unrecognized, to any other work. However, the incessant pressure of unpaid work can have detrimental effects on women’s mental and physical health. It could also exacerbate women’s time in poverty because these unpaid domestic activities are time-consuming, leaving women with little time for their own personal requirements. The gender gap in unpaid care work also increases women’s financial dependence and significantly reduces their opportunities in the labour market.

Recognition, Reduction and Redistribution Model to tackle gender inequalities in Unpaid Domestic Work

The importance of unpaid domestic and care work thus cannot be undermined - it acts like a hidden engine that drives paid work, and is therefore indispensable for the economy of a country. Hence, it becomes imperative to recognize, measure, redistribute and monetize unpaid domestic work. According to the Mckinsey Global Institute Report, India’s economic output would increase by $0.3 trillion if unpaid work was measured and monetized in India's economy. The Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 of the United Nations also lays emphasis on valuing unpaid care and domestic work through various policies.

Diane Elson, in a series of lectures, and a published paper in 2017 suggested a 3R model (Recognition, Reduction, Redistribution) address and integrate unpaid domestic and care work in the development agenda. This approach is a step towards achieving a more equitable distribution of unpaid domestic labour between men and women.

The first step is to Recognise unpaid work, its importance to households, communities and the economy of a country. Recognising unpaid work would require it to be measured statistically and thus inculcated into the macroeconomic policy. Time-Use Surveys act as an important tool to measure the invisible contribution of unpaid domestic work. The time devoted to unpaid work would be provided a monetary value through input valuation by calculating the “cost of time” in two ways, 1) opportunity cost - the market fee of the person who performed unpaid work or 2) replacement cost - the market fee of a domestic worker if hired by a family to perform that task. The National Statistical Office conducted the first Time Use Survey in India in 2019 - this is a step towards pushing for policies to monetize domestic labour in an efficient manner.

Reduction in unpaid domestic work would require investment in infrastructure to reduce women’s burden - basic services like supply of clean water and toilets, transportation, time-saving technological advancement in agricultural and cooking equipment, and education should be provided for by the State. The government should also have provisions for social services for children and the elderly.

The core objective remains to Redistribute the unpaid domestic work between men and women, and not eliminate this work completely. Therefore, it is crucial to address and challenge existing gender stereotypes by involving fathers, men, and boys in domestic care work. This would require shifting social norms around work and domestic chores. A good example in this regard could be UNICEF’s initiative called ‘Father from the Beginning’ in Cuba which pushes for equal parental responsibility by breaking traditional gender roles. A nationwide campaign by the Cuban government sought to create awareness among fathers on the shared responsibility of care work through brochures, advertisements, dramas, and social media and was successful in reaching half a million fathers.

Moreover, providing for equal amounts of maternity and paternity leave could be a step towards incentivising women’s employment in the paid economy. Here, Sweden’s example could be followed where fathers have been provided with a minimum share of parental leave to encourage them in domestic care work.

A common measure that has been tried out in various countries is cash compensations, transfers, or wages for housework. Back in December 2020, Kamal Haasan in his election manifesto for Tamil Nadu state assembly elections assured monthly payment to homemakers by recognizing their housework as work. A more popular program on cash transfers was Mexico’s “Oportunidades” which provided for conditional cash transfers to women in return for their services. However, such cash transfers could be seen as financial support or charity rather than payment for women’s work and services. Moreover, such programs end up reinforcing and perpetuating women’s responsibilities in domestic work and child care. Although it is a welcome step, it would have to be dealt with efficiently to reduce gender inequalities.

At the same time, it is important to note that integrating the above policy measures would require several actors coming together - individuals, communities, NGOs, civil society, the Government, and International Organizations working collectively to lessen the gender inequality in households.


From the above discussions, it is evident that unpaid domestic work done by women is a critical issue that requires our immediate attention. Creating awareness, breaking down social norms on the gendered division of labour, effective execution of the 3R model, and collaboration with various agencies could go a long way in creating an egalitarian economy for women.


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Cover Image: Manjunath Kiran/AFP

About the author: Antara is a first-year Master’s in Public Policy student at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy. She has interned at various think tanks and non-governmental organisations, and is passionate about gender and health policies.

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