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As India battles the world’s worst virus outbreak, some key political parties are promising an unprecedented monthly payment to all homemakers in a bid to win crucial state elections.

If enacted, the stipends would be some of the first in the world to specifically address women’s unpaid labor, which economists estimate accounts for up to 39% of global gross domestic product and is often absent from official statistics. They would also represent a major cultural shake-up in a nation where women are overwhelmed with domestic duties and their participation in the workforce is among the lowest on the planet — a predicament exacerbated by COVID-19.

India’s virus situation, which is now overwhelming hospitals in major cities, has hit women particularly hard. Many have reported a substantial or total loss of income since a nationwide lockdown last year, and housework has risen significantly as unemployed male migrants have returned home.

Out of five states that count votes on Sunday, three are likely to implement the stipends. Both the ruling coalition and the opposition contenders down south in Tamil Nadu and Kerala have promised monthly income support to homemakers. That includes the country’s main opposition Congress party, which has pledged 2,000 rupees ($27) for homemakers each month in both the northeastern state of Assam and Kerala.

In West Bengal, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee — one of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s top political opponents nationally — has also promised monthly income support to female heads of 16 million households of up to 1,000 rupees per month.

After coming to power in 2011, Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress positioned itself as a progressive alternative to Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party by launching a series of gender equity and social justice programs. While the BJP hasn’t adopted a similar policy for homemakers, it has several programs targeting women such as free education for girls and quotas for government jobs.

“The needle is slow to move on sticky social and cultural norms, but small positive steps can engender further change,” said Nalini Gulati, an economist at the London-based think tank International Growth Centre, and the managing editor of the research platform Ideas for India.

“Monthly income support by state governments — if implemented effectively — will put money in the hands of those who have been cash-strapped during the pandemic and address their unmet consumption needs,” she said. “This can also contribute towards creating demand in the economy as a whole.”

A woman walks past graffiti on a street in Mumbai on March 30. | REUTERS
A woman walks past graffiti on a street in Mumbai on March 30. | REUTERS

Uplifting women is vital for Asia’s third-largest economy as Modi pushes to attract foreign investment and boost India’s economic heft globally. India’s GDP could grow by 27% if women’s participation in the economy was raised to the same level as that of men, according to research by the International Monetary Fund.

Close to three-quarters of women are excluded from the workforce, leaving India ranked 145th out of 153 countries, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report. The low participation is because about 60% of women take on full-time domestic duties such as cleaning, cooking, fetching water and giving care to children and in-laws, India’s Economic Survey reported in January.

Although women spend nearly six hours a day on unpaid domestic work, compared with less than an hour for men, their contribution at home isn’t recorded in India’s national income.

The pledges to pay women for housework comes amid global debate about whether societies should do more to recognize and compensate women for the work they perform at home.

While more steps are required — including redistributing unpaid work in the household and better infrastructure to reduce the time it takes women to procure water and cooking fuel — the payments are a good start, according to Prabha Kotiswaran, a professor at King’s College London who has written articles on the economic worth of homemakers.

“It is a globally unprecedented move,” she said, “which is necessary in a country where there is zero recognition of women’s unpaid work.”

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