September 18, 2020 marked the passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg, a true warrior for gender equality, global feminist icon, and only the second woman to serve on the Supreme Court of the United States. Over the past few weeks, tributes not only poured in for the “notorious RBG”, but also for her lifelong partner, Martin Ginsberg. A man who respected his wife’s genius, lobbied for her Supreme Court appointment and took charge of cooking, Ginsberg was truly an equal partner who enjoyed his wife’s success, urged her to take on the next big challenge and dominate her field. These continue to be admirable and rare traits in a man, but standard expectations for a woman especially in India.

Indian women are currently burdened with a massively disproportionate share of unpaid, unacknowledged and invisible household labour. The Time Use Survey 2019 provided statistical confirmation for anyone with even a shred of doubt about this fact On average, Indian women spend about 5 hours per day on unpaid domestic and caregiving work, vs. 30-40 minutes for men. On any given day, 92% of women in the 15-59 years “working ages”, participate in unpaid domestic activities on any given day, vs. only 29% of men. It is striking that there are almost no differences in the gender distribution of domestic work across rural and urban areas.

How a typical Indian woman spends her day provides deep insights into the conundrum of why only a fifth of India’s women participate in the labour force participation rate. This figure is the lowest India has witnessed since Independence. Only 4.2% of her day is spent on employment activities and 5.8% on learning. A staggering 18.9% is spent on unpaid domestic and care work. On the other hand, a man spends 18.3% on employment activities and 7.1% on learning, but only 2.5% his day is occupied by unpaid domestic services.

Interestingly, time spent on leisure, community activities, and religious practices is similar for men and women, about 20% of the day on average. But notably, women’s leisure time is spent not on economically productive activities (such as professional work and education). These trends also raise important questions. Is the key reason for women enjoying similar leisure times as men due to women participating in these community activities alongside their families? How many women actually enjoy the autonomy of choosing their preferred leisure activity?

These questions have been answered in some part by the UDAYA survey findings from 2015-16 on ‘Agency, Community and Citizenship’, which examined adolescents’ agency, autonomy and participation in community organizations and democratic institutions. For instance, two-thirds of boys in Uttar Pradesh could make decisions regarding their education and relationships with other members of their community. This was in stark contrast to adolescent girls in UP, only two in five of whom had the freedom to make such decisions. The survey’s larger findings on the disparities between adolescent girls and boys with regard to their agency and level of participation substantiate our claim that family structures in India need to be closely examined to change gender norms before relying on institutional frameworks. They prove that violent incidents such as the ones that occurred in Hathras and Balrampur (Uttar Pradesh) are rooted in deep cultural norms along with systemic failures of law. The latter cannot be addressed without examining the former.

In the case of men, upbringing plays an enormous role in changing gender roles around the house. How many urban men were rendered helpless with housework during the Covid-19 lockdown when their personal servants could no longer visit their apartment buildings regularly due to fears of infection? It is thus clear that men stand as much to benefit as women if they are taught at an early age on how to take care of a household on their own.

Female role models at the local and district level also play a pivotal role in changing gender norms and stereotypes. Initiatives to promote the participation of women in politics have been around for a while now, with the objective of creating figures of female power who can be looked up to. The reservation for women bill of the Lok Sabha is only a small institutional step, since changing gender norms require encouragement from the community before institutional laws can evince changes. Women from all classes need to be encouraged by their families and neighbours to play significant roles in governance and administration within their communities, especially by participating in elections.

Solutions issues of gender disparity come in various forms and mediums. The question that now confronts us as a society is not how we can change, but whether we want to change.

(Ankitha Cheerakathil is the Executive Director-India of Institute H21, a Czech research organization. Mitali Nikore is the Founder of Nikore Associates, an economic policy thinktank.)

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