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Should Housewives Be Paid? Not so Fast…

Confession: My wife and I are avid Bump Love watchers. Ok, my wife is probably a little more than I initially but oba that is changing… Anyway, in a recent episode, the ladies debated whether or not stay-at-home wives (later amended to partners) should be paid.  

This particular discussion got me passionately arguing with each of the Bump Love ladies as they spoke. So much so that my wife had to pause the TV and remind me that they can’t hear me (only for her to start arguing with them herself a few minutes later)! So I figured if it got us that animated, penning my opinion just might be the best way to not talk to the television.

For context, the discussion was (reportedly) based on a recent ruling by a court in Kenya that the role of a housewife is a full-time, payable job. Justice Teresiah Matheka’s ruling was in regard to a separation case in which the housewife sought to have her input in the union considered as equal to that of her formerly employed husband. In that particular case and for that kind of purpose, I think it makes perfect sense. If you are dissolving a union, it’s only fair that the full breadth of that union be considered when deciding how much or what each partner should walk away with. Wealth creation within a marriage is not merely a matter of who earned the money. It is also about how that money was spent (or saved), what skills were added to nurture and grow it and the other non-monetary contributions (such as peace of mind, health and even happiness) that made it possible for the income-earner to earn in the first place.

But that’s not what the Bump Love ladies were discussing. The matter they discussed was whether or not stay-at-home wives should be paid. And right from the start, I had a problem with the way this question was set.

Paid? Paid by who? 

It became clear very quickly that the answer to this was paid by the husband. And it appeared there was quite some support for this idea. That’s when I started doing the kind of mental gymnastics that would have made Simmone Biles proud.

You see, the moment we accept the idea that women should be paid by their partners for being stay-at-home parents, we (intentionally or not) turn a relationship into a business venture in which the woman is an employee and the husband is the business owner. And as we all know, he who pays the piper, calls the tune. 

So how exactly would this work? Who gets to decide what the pay is? Should there be like a minimum pay cutting across socio-economic boundaries such that whether you are a housewife in Nazigo or Namungoona, you are assured of a basic pay? Should this minimum wage be a constant that does not take into account the man’s income or should it be a sliding scale with add-ons and subsidies depending on one’s employment? Assuming these issues are somehow resolved, we then get into the juicier bits: if the man is paying for this service, is there to be some sort of regular appraisal? Monthly, quarterly, biennial or annual? How do we ensure that there’s return on investment? And what happens when, as is almost certainly bound to happen, the payer is dissatisfied with the payee’s performance? Does the payer have the right to hire and fire? Can they for instance, in the interest of better returns on investment, decide that this employee is not doing the job as expected and needs to be replaced? Or could he perhaps increase on the labour force at home so as to increase productivity? Does he do this in consultation with the employee or is this an executive decision? Again, in the unlikely event that all these questions have ready answers, what happens at the point of dissolving the union (should it come to that)? Can the husband, having been paying his wife for the work rendered at home, comfortably take all the wealth that has been amassed in the duration of the marriage? I mean if the wife has been paid in full for services rendered, why would she have any claim to the wealth?

The problem with monetising stay-at-home mothers’ work in the context of marriages is not that the work they do isn’t valuable. It is precisely the opposite; that it reduces their contribution to that of an employee.

A subordinate.

And the dangers that accrue from such arrangements are legion. For starters, the moment one names their price and it is paid, the other party feels entitled to go and do as they please. Anti kati tokyamubanja. And before anyone says that would not be the intention, we would do well to remember that this wouldn’t be the first time women were fed that good-intentions hot air.

Consider bride price. Culturalists will argue vehemently that bride price is simply supposed to be a token of appreciation to the woman’s family for raising her into the ‘marriage material’ she is. And there may be stories here and there about how lovely it is and how it was a great way to honour the bride’s parents. But ask the regular woman on the street and they’ll tell you. The moment that bride price was paid (especially when it was paid as a demand), the man figured he owned her. FIDA receives tens of cases on a daily basis of women being beaten and abused by husbands who feel entitled to do as they please because they “paid their cows”. If such injustice can be meted out on women whose bride price was paid to their parents, how much more do you think will be dealt to them when there is a payment made to them directly?

Emere esiride? Kiboko.

Omwana akaabye? Kiboko.

Ndi munsonga? Galamira gwe!

Wakazaala? You should have thought of that before you chewed ‘my money’.

Of course, there are many men out there that would gladly pay their partners for being stay-at-home wives/mothers. But then, these are most likely the same men that are currently co-planning, budgeting and spending their income with their wives. Or giving their wives enough money to spend such that this is not a problem.

In other words, the proposal to pay stay-at-home wives does not address the problem it seeks to solve.

At the heart of it, marriage and other such unions should be a partnership. One both parties enter as equals. Depending on culture, faith and mutual consent, there might be a recognised leader of that partnership. The ‘head’ of the family. But even then, the said party should be first among equals.

As I said earlier, intent is one thing, reality is another.

For far too many women, the reality of marriage falls so far short of the intended idea of a partnership that this description sounds like the kind of political noise we are used to every election cycle. Their input in marriage- more often significantly higher than that of their male counterparts- is underestimated, undervalued, ridiculed, scorned and abused.

This needs to change and I would not be so presumptuous as to suggest that I have a quick solution to a challenge that has been around for almost as long as humanity has.

But I am without a shadow of doubt sure that requiring men to pay their wives isn’t the solution.

One of the ladies on the show said ‘we attach value to what we pay for’. On the evidence of the kind of things that have resulted from men being forced to pay bride price, I would be extremely hesitant to apply that maxim to marriage.

Scratch that. I vehemently disagree.

But what about you? What do you think? Please watch the discussion and then come and we talk.

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