For many women, working from home has meant working while doing the houseworkDuring the lockdown, women are having to work shifts from home alongside unpaid housework, coupled with the anxiety of losing their jobs if their performance is subpar.
With the lockdown in place, Pratiggya Nepal’s day begins at around 7am and typically ends at 10pm. As a development worker, she is working from home but because she is home, she is forced to take up a lot of the housework. And with schools and daycare centres all closed, she also has to look after her two children.
“Devoting time to office work has been extremely difficult,” she said. “I’m considering taking a month-long leave without pay as I cannot focus on work with two children and two elderly parents to care for. The mental stress is daunting.”
The lockdown implemented by the government to prevent the spread of Covid-19 has closed down most places of business and forced everyone indoors. But many women, for whom going to work brought some respite from housework, are now forced to do both—their office jobs and the housework.
Women have always shouldered a bigger portion of housework, even when they are as active participants in the labour force as men. The “second shift”, a term coined by American sociologist Arlie Hochschild in 1989, denotes the additional housework that women have to undertake after coming back from their regular jobs.
“The division of labour is heavily gendered in our social and cultural values,” said Babita Rai, a feminist writer. “The fair division of housework is a concept often discussed but rarely put into practice because Nepali society still adheres strongly to discriminatory religious and socio-cultural values that translate into gendered practices.”
Schools, daycare centres and babysitters have enabled women to share out a portion of their domestic load and take up professional work outside their homes. However, this lockdown has closed them all down, resulting in women having to take up working shifts at home, along with unpaid housework, coupled with the anxiety of losing their jobs if their performance is subpar.
“Some women receive support from their husbands but for those who do not, this lockdown is cumbersome,” said Sony KC, a working mother who holds a doctorate in gender studies. “If the children and elderly are sick or demand extra care, a huge part of a working day is focused on them. This leaves working mothers with almost no time to rest or take care of their mental wellbeing.”
According to the Nepal Labour Force Survey 2017-18, only 22 percent of working age women were employed but the survey did not consider unpaid housework or subsistence farming as employment. And even when women do work professionally, many men continue to see themselves as the sole breadwinners of the family and thus, refrain from household work, which is still considered the women’s domain.
“Men do not contribute to housework owing to the notion that as breadwinners they need rest at home,” said Sabitri Gautam, a writer. “The children in the family learn similar gender norms, and females are expected to contribute to housework from a young age.”
The lockdown has reinforced existing gender norms in such a way that there is, quite literally, no escape. This can result in serious consequences, as there are already rising incidents of domestic violence across the world. Activists fear the same in Nepal.
Socialised gender distinctions place various other restrictions on women too, including their freedom of movement. According to statistics from the Nepal Police, on the seventh day of the lockdown, 8,605 persons were held from all over Nepal for defying the lockdown. Among them, the vast majority—8,384—were men.
Umesh Raj Joshi, joint spokesperson for the Nepal Police, believes that some of the detained women were violating the lockdown to look for vegetables and other essentials, assuming the situation to be similar to a bandh. Men, on the other hand, defied the lockdown to visit friends and out of sheer boredom, according to Joshi.