Sub-inspector Sunita Tiwari, 30, reaches the Sukhi Sewania police station on the outskirts of Bhopal at 8 am. She leaves her two children, aged six and 12, with her husband Vinod, 32. While Sunita tries to complete at least some of the morning chores before she leaves, it is Vinod who handles most of the work at home. His state government job, with its fixed work hours - 10.30 am to 5.30 pm - gives him enough time to get his children ready for school and to cook lunch. Washing clothes is also part of his duties.
Sunita handles the shopping, and does all she can to spend as much time as she can with the children. Sunday morning is the only time the whole family is together. Once a week, when she is on night-patrol duty, Sunita manages to stay home until 11 am. "Vinod and I make all home-related decisions together. Being in the police, I find it difficult to spare time for the family, and I could not have held this challenging job without my husband's help," says Sunita.
The Tiwaris represent a new trend in Madhya Pradesh - a rethinking of the traditional roles of husband and wife. More and more men and women are working outside the home. According to the Census of India 2001, 33.1 per cent of women in Madhya Pradesh work. In the urban areas, this figure stands at 11.7 per cent. A larger number of people are also living in nuclear families. In 2005, the National Family Health Survey had released figures stating that 55.8 per cent of all families in Madhya Pradesh are nuclear families.
Even in relatively traditional families, couples have come to realize that gender roles will have to be redrawn. "In the beginning, it was tough to leave the household work to my husband because I believed that men could not do domestic work efficiently," says Vinita Sharma, 42, a medical social worker in the Madhya Pradesh Health Department. Her husband, Krishna Kumar, 45, is a librarian in the Obedullahganj Government College in Raisen district near Bhopal. The couple shares household responsibilities so that they get enough time to spend with each other after 6 pm. Watering the garden is Krishna's responsibility, while preparing lunch for their two children is Vinita's.
"Since there is nobody else to do the work, we have to manage things between us," says Krishna Kumar. He did feel odd about supervising the domestic help but feels more comfortable now. "However, I do feel that it is easier for women to point out various tasks and oversights to the housemaid."
Renu, 35, and Ashok Wadhwa, 37, say they began dividing the housework after their daughter Mehak, now 15, was born - a practice they have since kept up. "It's quite easy to tackle the situation now. I leave for office around 9 am, while my husband manages the home. He is a businessman and starts his day late, so he is able to complete all the morning chores," says Renu. He also handles work outside the home, like paying electricity or phone bills. Renu takes care of the evening chores - like cooking or preparing for the next morning - when she reaches home at 5.30 pm. Attending parent-teacher meetings and taking care of Mehak's homework is also her responsibility.
Schoolteacher Anju Gaur, 28, and her husband Rajesh Gaur, 32, a hardware engineer in a private college, found that moving out of a joint family set-up was the impetus for chore-sharing. Anju says that she feels closer to her husband now. She is also more comfortable in terms of the work burden. "I feel the warmth of our relationship when Rajesh shares the household responsibilities. I had never felt this way when we were living in a joint family. Rajesh also shares more things with me now, including information about new developments in various fields," she says.
According to Gyanendra Gautam, Head of the Department of Sociology in Barkatullah University, Bhopal, the idea of the dominating male is fading fast. 'The example of men and women working in coordination with each other is a great example for the next generation. The sense of equality that this sharing of household chores brings about helps women work more effectively both outside the home and within it."
"This is, of course, still a nascent trend, yet to catch on in small towns and rural areas - or even in a big way in urban areas. As the cost of living increases in urban areas, it is essential for both husband and wife to work in order to provide financial security for the family. Eventually, this will impact traditional gender roles as well," says Gautam, adding, "The challenge is greater in a joint family, where men who wish to participate in household chores are chided."
Bhopal-based psychologist Ruma Bhattacharya agrees, but also says, "It is true that couples experience an entirely new relationship in nuclear families. But they should understand that this is also possible while they are still living with their old parents."