If Indian men did just a little more housework they could save thousands of women's lives and potentially add 16 percent to the country's GDP.
India’s long-hidden gender crisis is out in the open now. Thousands of women have been killing themselves in India consistently since the 1990s. Despite occasional reports or studies, not much has been done about it.
Last week, a Lancet study put it down in black and white. Nearly two in every five women in the world who kill themselves are Indian. Most of these women are married, below the age of 35.
The report said India holds over 17 percent of the global population in 2016, but accounted for over 36 percent of the global suicide deaths among women. “The proportion of global suicide deaths in India has increased since 1990 for both sexes, but more for women than for men,” the report stated.
In fact, more than 20,000 housewives have been killing themselves in India every year since 1997. In 2009, more than 25,000 housewives killed themselves. In 2013, the leap was almost double.
According to India’s national crime records bureau a total number of 44,256, 42,521 and 42,088 women committed suicide during 2013, 2014 and 2015 respectively.
More than 5 percent of the 20,000 women who committed suicide did so owing to mental health issues that include stress and depression. A report in the Indian Journal of Psychiatry in 2015 attributes rising depression among women in India, across all age groups, to “the multiple roles” they have to play.
The Lancet study points out the major factors contributing to this crisis including “Personal or social factors such as socioeconomic circumstances, interpersonal, social and cultural conflicts, alcoholism, financial problems, unemployment, and poor health.”
In his book, Suicide and Society in India, Peter Mayer, and co-researcher Della Steen, talks about how "risk of suicide is, on the whole, highest in what are probably the first or second decades of marriage, that is, for those aged between 30 and 45."
"We found that female literacy, the level of exposure to the media and smaller family size, all perhaps indicators of female empowerment, were correlated with higher suicide rates for women in these age groups," the author had told the BBC in an interview.
Mayer also says suicides rates among housewives are lowest in the most "traditional" states, where family sizes are big and extended families are common.
Rates are higher in states where households are closer to nuclear families, such as Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala. Which again points to a lack of support, as the joint family system is disintegrating slowly all over the country, and are yet to be replaced with a wide net of institutional support in terms of childcare or flexible working hours.
Mayer says that as the women become more educated and the traditional joint-family system erodes, suicide rates are likely to increase in India.
There is no single answer that explains high female suicide rates in India, but a major reason—and which might be the single determining one—would be Indian men.
During a recent trip to the mountains, I watched with awe as three young women would tend to an agricultural patch next to my cottage, bringing huge loads of fertilisers on their heads, negotiating the steep uphill curves for eight straight hours a day. Their day should start at 10am and finishes at 6pm.
Only it doesn’t.
They wake up at 5 in the morning to get the housework out of the way before 10am. Their day finishes at 11 pm. After they get home from tending the field, they would be cooking the evening meal, and tending to housework or children.
“What about your husbands? Have you ever asked them to help out?”
They looked incredulously at me.
“What do they do when they get back home?
“Watch television,” they say.
Indian men are lazy, entitled and loathe to lend a hand with chores or care work.
India has one of the largest gender gaps in unpaid work, where men spend less than one hour per day on household chores. This is less than China and South Africa (1.5 hours) and Italy, Mexico, Portugal, Spain, and Turkey (two hours.)
The report notes that Indian men spend a lot of time watching television, relaxing, eating and sleeping, or talking to friends.
A McKinsey report from 2015 says women in India do almost ten times the amount of unpaid care work that men do. In China, and its much poorer-neighbour Bangladesh, women do about three and four times, respectively. Three-quarters of this unpaid work is routine household chores.
Another OECD report in 2014 says Indian men devote 36 minutes per day to unpaid care responsibilities, out of which 36 percent goes into housework, with the remaining time spent on shopping, care for household members, and travel related to household activities.
Out of the six hours women devote to unpaid care activities, the portion of time specifically spent on housework touches 85 percent.
Indian men have grown up believing that housework is a woman’s domain. They have never been taught how to roll a chapati or wash a dish or boil the tea. While Indian women are brought up to tend to the kitchen (even though they might also step out to work), Indian men are only brought up to be breadwinners.
By sharing household chores, they could potentially add 16 percent to the country’s GDP by 2025, according to McKinsey.
In India, women became co-breadwinners many moons ago. It’s time the men stepped up and became co-spouses.
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