A five-year interdisciplinary, cross-sectoral project to re-theorise the normative, empirical, regulatory and political dimensions of social reproduction in India (2018-2023)
Feminist scholars have long demonstrated the invisibility of women’s reproductive labour, performed in bearing and raising children, maintaining households and socially sustaining male labour. Feminist economists have strived to get international agencies and national governments to redraw the “production boundary” to ensure the recognition of women’s unpaid labour.
Today mainstream international institutions, such as the World Economic Forum, OECD and private donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, acknowledge the need for women’s economic empowerment and note how their unpaid labour hinders their participation in the formal economy, particularly in the Global South. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 5.4 in fact requires that unpaid care and domestic work be recognised and valued through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate. In the absence of commitment from states and international institutions to such systemic reforms, however, and the increased criminalisation of women’s economic choices, our research project takes as its point of departure the very theorising of the concept of social reproduction.
Anchored in the Global South context of India, our project broadly conceptualises female reproductive labour to include unpaid domestic work, but also abject forms of labour performed by women outside of the institutional domain of marriage and for the market, namely, sex work, erotic dancing, commercial surrogacy and paid domestic work. Placing varied forms of reproductive labour along the market-marriage continuum, our project not only demonstrates the law’s key role in producing and entrenching the invisibility of women’s reproductive labour in these sectors, it also offers a cross-sectoral comparison of the law’s highly differential regulation of these apparently disparate forms of female reproductive labour – sex work through criminal law, erotic dancing through licensing law, surrogacy and paid domestic work through contract law and unpaid domestic work through family and tort laws.
Drawing on feminist legal theory and deploying methodologies ranging from doctrinal case law analysis to ethnographies of women’s labour markets, our project problematises law’s jurisdictional boundaries over women’s reproductive labour and critiques the varied, even contradictory legal regulation of reproductive labour as well as the misguided law reform initiatives that undermine women’s economic agency. Given the current interest, nationally and internationally, in unpaid care work, our project will offer a timely intervention by proposing a holistic understanding of reproductive labour and exploring prospects for an alternate regulatory matrix to further women’s economic justice.
Placing varied forms of reproductive labour along the market-marriage continuum, our research project offers four main work packages: