Gendered Access to Consumption Within the Household

A household is a system of status, authority and decision-making. It is the primary locus of consumption.”

–Ann Whitehead

The ideology that dictates consumption and distribution of family income for personal and collective needs within the household is a patriarchal one, bestowing unequal access to women and men. Assessment of the needs of the dependent (non-earning) family members and their subsequent access to the household fund was stereotypically done by the male member (earning member) in a capitalist society. Capitalism as an economic form, has forced earning members to go out of the house to do labour. Subsequently, the concept of ‘personal’ remuneration that disregards the wife’s domestic labour follows, viewing her as a dependent person.

‘Consumption’ entails everything that can be purchased with money (example: consumer goods, services, access to resources like electricity and water, access to recreational facilities, educational enrollments, etc.) or utilized as enjoyment from daily labour (example: time, space, etc.). As part of the sociological survey conducted by me last year to uncover the hierarchies within the household, I tried to ascertain whether the disparity between a husband and a wife as consumers varies with varying class, and by extension, residence, education and occupation. The attempt was to find whether a certain type of family employment or economic strata has a corresponding ideological ethos providing the prescriptive framework of consumption and distribution within the household.

Access to consumer behavior of the husband and the wife in a household, is largely unequal and has an underlying power axis which follows the principle of patriarchy. This disparity between a husband and a wife’s monetary access and by extension, the consumption access is inversely proportional to the class status. Higher the class status of the family, lower is the disparity between the consumptive access between a husband and a wife. Within any class, third generation learners are expected to exhibit more democratic decision making processes for the distribution and purchase of consumptive goods or recreational services than second or first generation learners.

Households with a husband and a wife residing together in the National Capital Region (NCR) covering both urban areas and rural pockets were interviewed, and the sample size was taken as 100 families. The research results showed that in NCR, women access to consumption within the household varies with their class composition gender, neighborhood (urban/rural), composition of their household (nuclear family/joint family).

The data revealed that majority of the women in the joint family distributes monthly income for their household needs than women in the nuclear family. In lower and middle class families, male members exercise more control over the monthly income than men in the upper class families.

Regarding the monthly expenditure for household maintenance, it has been found that women in nuclear families exercise more power than do women in joint families. In lower class family structures, equal percentage of women and men maintain their household. Majority percent of independent women have rights to maintain the monthly expenditure than dependent women. Regarding the consultation of elderly members or husband for personal expenditures, the data reveals that majority of the women in joint families must seek permission of their elders to move out, than women in the nuclear families. The trend is interesting in lower and middle class families, wherein married women are expected to take the permission of their elders to spend on their personal needs than women in the upper class households. Both dependent and independent women have to seek permission from their elders even for their personal expenses.

Regarding mobility and access to transport, more percentage of women are allowed to move freely in nuclear families than women in joint families. Similar trend was observed in both upper and lower class families. Both independent and dependent women enjoy less freedom.

The data also suggests that when it comes to taking decisions about the expenditure on children, majority of both husbands and wives take decisions together about their child’s expenditures in nuclear families than that in joint families. One important area in which women have a final say is the child’s major life decisions (education, etc). Majority of the women in upper, middle and lower class household take final decisions about their children’s life. Majority percent of the independent women are able to spend on their children than that of the dependent women. However, sadly, when it comes to taking decisions of huge monetary investments, a very few percentage of women, both in nuclear and joint families have the power to take these decisions. But, in upper class households, more percentage of women is able to decide about huge investments than women in the lower or the middle class families.

The survey therefore proved the hypothesis that the access to consumptive resources and the consumer behavior of the husband and the wife in a household is unequal and has an underlying power axis which follows the principle of patriarchy, gender and status (class).

Picture Courtesy- Boston Globe


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