Housewives: The unpaid professionals

Syed Kamaluddin Ahmed

My mother never got paid for her contribution of whole life as a home management person, neither did my housewife sister get compensated for her share of unpaid housework. They would never bargain, I am convinced, but rest of the human community should positively reciprocate to recognize their professional dignity. It is their right, very much a human right.

It was 1984, about 17 years back, when I wrote an article in a vernacular daily titled 'How much is the salary of a housewife?'. In that article I tried to assess and project, very arbitrarily, the work output of a housewife in financial terms. Being a professional of different kind I am not very comfortable with economic issues. Moreover, the issues related to this subject matter never occurred in my mind till I got married. I saw my mother working all through the day and managing a big family only to have an almost sleepless night because of unending worries and very frequent attacks of asthma. Like many of us, probably, I also had the similar idea that it was the way the mothers were supposed to play their 'role' in a family. I could never realize that her work also had some contribution in family exchequer and needed to be compensated. When I saw my wife, herself a professional, very closely and found doing all household work where I had very little participation, I thought, it needs to be sorted out. She had the similar kind of job as I had; still she had to take the responsibility of managing the family. We talked of sharing the responsibility, and she was surprised and impressed at the same time. I could not decide why she did not raise the issue earlier. Did she think that it was my birthright to not to take household responsibilities except washing my own clothes and doing once a week grocery! I tried to estimate, again very arbitrarily, the amount we were saving because of her doing all the household work. I got inspired to write the article. Unfortunately, the article could not attract any public opinion. There was no appreciation, neither was any criticism.

English thesaurus and dictionaries defined the word 'housewife' differently. "The woman who stays home and manages the household, and is not working", "the woman who stays home and does only household works" were among others found in different dictionaries. One thing that is apparent from these statements is that the very word in question has been seen from a particular perspective where her staying home was the issue rather than her contributing to the family management. The dictionary meaning of 'profession' is somewhat imprecise and ambiguous. "Occupation", "job", "career" and similar kind of words are found as the meaning of profession. Now the question is that the woman who is not "working" or does not have a "job" or does not intend for a "career", is she a professional? Can we define the household work as professional work? In some of the dictionaries the 'professionals' are defined as ones having "special skill" acquired after particular type of "training" and "education". Is it necessary to undergo certain specific kind of education and training to become a housewife? Then in all consideration, one may argue, the housewives cannot be professionals! When certain group of people run a system like managing a family very efficiently without disruption since the system came into place, should we not call them professionals?

I was somewhat taken a back and at the same time overwhelmed when I saw a poster in an NGO office. There was a picture of a woman with ten or so upper limbs with each hand doing one household work and the caption was "my wife does not work". This was a visible protest against male chauvinistic societal norms, where women's role as a home management person is seldom recognized with respect. But it also indicated that something still remained untold. The poster was also speaking of denial of role definition for one half of a dichotomous human race. As a medical professional, I am very often faced with circumstances where similar kind of situation arises. During history taking, when I ask my female clients about their occupation, they say, "I don't work" either proudly (may be to deceive her husband, if he accompanies her) or with a shy and deserted look. The husband is sometimes found more prompt and responds, "no, no, she doesn't work", more often with pride and sometimes with insolence and reluctance.

Now I have changed my strategy to rephrase the question "Do you do anything other than your housework?". I may sound little tactful but I find it a better way to avoid often an embarrassing situation.

I am sure, invisible contributions of housewives at microeconomic level are definitely considered in calculating the GDP of a country. Many of the household works, besides home management, are very labour intensive. If the work output is converted into commodity pricing, the whole work cycle would definitely be proved more than cost-effective. There may be arguments that the women who work outside or who are professionals do similar kind of works as those who are not employed outside. This is true to some extent but it is not exactly the case. The working women and professionals need more household assistance than non-professionals or those who are not employed outside.

Let us do a not too complicated exercise of calculating additional household expenditures depending on middle class labour market pricing, if housewives do not do their job. Average payment for employing a cook for cooking three times a day would cost a wholesome amount. Cleaning and washing may cost another similar amount. Shopping, grocery and other odd jobs may cost more few hundreds. Overall management of the house is very difficult to convert into pricing term. Therefore, in a very conservative measure, the household compensation for a woman working outside may stand somewhere near the salary of a professional in any of the sectors in government pay scale. These jobs are conventionally accomplished by housewives. If such is a very simple measure of functioning cost of a housewife, then is there a problem in considering housewives as professionals? Moreover, over time, the housewives acquire certain knowledge and skill in managing the household that many formal training and education cannot provide.

Now let us try to look at the privileges the housewives get in day to day functioning. It is an unpaid skill intensive hard work without much variation. There is no bonus, gratuity or savings provisions, or retirement package. Very often the service is not recognized and, if at all, only distantly appreciated. There is no scope for taking leave or absent from work unless one is seriously ill. There is no scope for negotiation, protest or appeal. There is no health insurance, injury compensation or legal protection. Housewives often suffer from preventable health consequences like malnutrition and multiple pregnancy. They eat last, least and often leftovers. They cannot demand planned family because they "do not work", and repeated childbirth should not be a problem for them! These are the things oftrepeatedly persuaded by women lib activists. I find these are more specifically true and appropriate for housewives than working or professional women.

Whenever we talk of human rights we frequently refer to gender issues and rights of the women. Talking about housewives, as I perceive, is not talking about women's rights, rather it is talking about a profession that exists in this God's earth since antiquity, but is seldom recognized. It is a profession that needs its own identity, principles of functioning and at the same time rights and privileges. Housewife as a profession should be defined in economic terms and its contribution as a professional group in national growth and development deserves special mention in national fiscal documents. Their skill, self-learned management endowment, contribution to family growth and stability should add to their credentials, and should be considered in alternative occupations, public or private. They should have right to decide on their health and pregnancy, and there should be provision for legal protection in case of any imposition on those issues. Housewives should learn to negotiate and actively participate in family decision-making including those on financial matters. Working hours should be decided and there should be provision for leave. Extra hours work should be compensated. All those should come under a package that might ensure a social and financial security. As monetary compensation often may not be feasible, and as their contribution at microeconomic level can never be ignored, there may be provision at state level for their security. There should be age bar for continuing the profession which may be complemented by a retirement package.

All those propositions may have some degree of ambiguity and appear very thematic, and to many, may sound somewhat unrealistic. I do agree. Those are only initial thoughts, may be ideas, but can surely be converted into realistic action plan if the matter is given a serious consideration. It needs establishment of a participatory forum, forum of housewives, to translate the ideas and thoughts into action. Formation of such a forum, may be an earlier version of a professional body, will be the stepping stone of a process. Reform comes through such a process and the process needs to be started somewhere. Reform is necessary when there is conflict of interest leaving possibility of exploitation of one cohort of population by another. Then it becomes a question of rights, more specifically human rights, breach and violation of which may lead to extinction of integrity of a yet to be recognized "profession". My mother never got paid for her contribution of whole life as a home management person, neither did my housewife sister get compensated for her share of unpaid housework. They would never bargain, I am convinced, but rest of the human community should positively reciprocate to recognize their professional dignity. It is their right, very much a human right.

Dr. Syed Kamaluddin Ahmedis a medical professional and works in National AIDS/STD Programme as a Behaviour Change Specialist.

Source: The Daily Star: Dhaka, December 7, 2001