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Coronavirus lockdown triggers socio-cultural, gender conflicts at home

Sonal Khetarpal     April 8, 2020

Larsen and Toubro CEO and MD SN Subrahmanyan wrote a letter to his employees last week (Business Today has seen a copy of the letter) about how working from home is tougher for women where they have to manage work and domestic chores and adds that he appreciates their effort during the "turbulent times".

The letter is not ill-intentioned but does little in urging male employees  to be equal partners. He adds, "With our women colleagues trying to adjust to the new way of life, it is imperative that we keep ourselves out of their way - 'like what I do' - by doing one's job without getting into their way. Wherever possible and if capable of, one should help out in household chores like cooking, washing, etc."

Data from several fronts show how the current crisis situation is more stressful for women where they are not only anxious about the pandemic, but are also dealing with family and mental health-related issues.

Also read: Coronavirus Live Updates: UP govt to seal 15 districts till April 13; Noida, Varanasi to be under lockdown

Puneet Manuja, founder, YourDOST says, "Since the lockdown there is a drastic increase in queries related to anxiety and uncertainty but we are seeing an increasing number of women calling us for issues related to discord in the family and the inability to manage work and home."

He shares the instance of 35-year old Ashmeet Khurana (name changed) who is usually a calm person but has been constantly irritated during the lockdown. She complained how small things, like a switched fan in an empty room or the tiny speck of leftover food started bothering her and would lead to huge fights with her husband. Unable to comprehend the change in her temperament she had reached out to online counselling startup YourDOST to share the travails of her personal life. She was diagnosed with physical and mental fatigue. Managing office work along with household chores was getting to her. To top it all, she was feeling disappointed and wasn't able to articulate it to her husband, who doesn't support her with routine tasks at home.

Also read: Coronavirus: When will lockdown be lifted? PM likely to decide on Saturday

The socio-cultural norms still prevail in many homes in India where managing the household is still a woman's responsibility. During the lockdown, women have to now manage workplace tasks along with the house, without the support ecosystem of house helpers and day care centres. "While husbands help, women are the ones responsible for getting everything done at home. During the lockdown, women have to navigate the new reality of doing office work at home while being a cook, housekeeper, tuition teacher for the kids, caregiver for the elders which is adding stress to their lives," says Nirmala Menon, Founder and CEO of inclusion solutions consulting firm Interweave.

The 2019 report 'Big Small Steps', by Akshara Centre on gender beliefs among urban youth population shows that a high percentage - 79 per cent - of men feel that both genders should have equal rights. However, 50 per cent of men said women shouldn't do paid work if it restricts their ability to manage household chores. What was startling was only 1.5 per cent men said that basic cooking, cleaning and washing was their responsibility too.

Menon adds that the power play of gender roles gets worse in troubled times. "What we have seen is in a crisis situation like the current lockdown, gender role expectations get accentuated because they offer the sense of familiarity and no one wants to try out new behaviour skills amid uncertainty," he says.

Also read: Coronavirus: AIIMS staff told to reuse masks, PPEs as rationing measures

Media reports about data from National Commission for Women (NCW) reiterates the increase in complaints being registered by women. Since the lockdown, NCW has received over 250 complaints from women out of which 69 are cases of domestic violence. China too has reported more cases of domestic violence and divorce since the lockdown was announced.

As more women come out to work, the expectations of stereotypical gender behaviour are likely to get challenged adding to anxiety in domestic lives. Saundarya Rajesh, Founder of talent strategy firm Avtar says, "There is this expectation that women are supposed to instinctively know how to work from home. While the majority of male managers are trying to figure it out for the first time, they are expecting their female colleagues or spouses to have all the answers but they unfortunately don't and that is leading to a lot of stress," she says. She says that what adds to the stress is women are not in roles that facilitate remote work. India is a country in transition and only 15 per cent of India's white collar workforce comprises women, and almost 60 per cent of them are in low value jobs. "What we have seen is jobs in lower and middle order are difficult to be done remotely and that is why it is so difficult for women to work from home," says Rajesh.

Scientists say it takes 14-21 days to form a habit. It is for the first time men will be cooped up at home for three weeks straight and will observe, and hopefully empathise too, the enormity of skills required to run a home. Today's crisis might also lead to the much-required change in mindset where men step up to lead (not help whenever they can) homes, as they do in office.

Also read: Coronavirus: Govt demarcates different facilities for mild, moderate, severe cases

INDIA CORONAVIRUS TRACKER: BusinessToday.In brings you a daily tracker as coronavirus cases continue to spread. Here is the state-wise data on total cases, fatalities and recoveries in one comprehensive graphic.

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