August 21, 2015
BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Eduardo Gauna, 60, arranges screws on his work table. He slowly fastens them into pieces of wood that will soon become a kitchen cabinet, following a design his client gave him.
Gauna is a “marido por hora” – a “husband per hour.” He’s a handyman of sorts, but unlike others in that trade, most of whom have specialized skills and work for companies, he manages his own off-the-books business. And his roughly 100 clients are all single women, and most are over the age of 40.
In Argentina’s deep-rooted machismo culture, women don’t usually perform home maintenance tasks. But as more women find themselves living alone due to divorce or widowhood, more men are advertising their services as “husbands per hour” to do basic home repairs or small construction projects.
And as their country’s inflation rate soars, “husbands” say this job lets them control their incomes by adjusting their pay scale to the black market economy.
Gauna was working as a janitor in an apartment building when he saw the potential of being a “husband.” Divorced women, who lived in many of the building’s apartments, often called him for help with home repairs. Gauna says he earned 12,000 pesos (about $1,300) as a janitor, but as a “husband” fixing leaky faucets, changing light bulbs or tightening water pipes, his wages have soared. Now, he’s paid in cash, and earns as much as 20,000 pesos ($2,164) a month. This 67 percent increase has helped him cope with the effects of Argentina’s inflation, he says.
“I am, like the name says, a ‘husband per hour,’” he says. “I do all the maintenance tasks that are needed in a house.”
Gauna and other “husbands” have a growing potential client base. Between 1980 and 2010, the number of women from 40 to 49 years old living alone in Buenos Aires increased more than 100 percent, according to a 2012 report from the General Directorate of Statistics and Census. The report notes that the phenomenon is due to increasing divorce rates, widowhood and childlessness, among other factors. But the commonality between the women living alone is that many have money to support themselves independently, the report states.
That change is part of a global trend. In Britain, the number of people age 45 to 64 who live alone has grown by 27 percent between 2004 and 2014, according to Britain’s Office for National Statistics. In Australia, women in their mid-50s and beyond are increasingly more likely than men to live alone, reports the Australian Institute of Family Studies.
In Argentina, “husbands” are popular among older single women because they were more likely than younger women to have been raised with traditional notions of gender roles, says Jessica Malegarie a sociologist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires.
Some women prove to be more sexist than men, Malegarie says, by depending on men to do certain jobs rather than learning to do those tasks themselves.
“Husbands” and their clients say this profession has been on the rise in the past year and a half, but it’s not clear how many “husbands” work in Buenos Aires. Many “husbands” advertise through word of mouth, though some “husbands” publicly seek clients. MercadoLibre Argentina, a large e-commerce network, shows at least four men advertising as “husbands.”
María Teresa López, 69 and divorced, first hired Gauna more than a year ago.
“I make him a list of what needs to be done, from tightening a screw to painting a wall,” she says.
López, a psychologist, says she feels capable of doing some of those tasks, but she prefers to hire him to save time for herself. When Gauna arrives, López goes to a bar across the street. It’s not a question of machismo, she says, but of comfort. She prefers to delegate some household tasks so she can rest.
Before she met Gauna, López says she asked male relatives and friends to help. But she didn’t like asking for favors. With Gauna, the relationship is clear: He fixes things and she pays him in cash.
Víctor Gantus, 67, left his career as a carpenter to become a “husband per hour” almost 18 months ago, after a neighbor asked him to fix furniture in her kitchen. She continued to call him for other repairs, he says, and recommended his services to her friends.
“They are calling me a lot,” he says.
Most of Gantus’ clients are women. As a carpenter, he earned about 8,000 pesos ($866) each month, but as a “husband” he earns about 20,000 pesos ($2,164) each month.
Sometimes there is confusion about the services a “husband” offers. Gauna, who is divorced and lives alone, says there have been a few times when women expected to have sex.
“One day, I go to a client’s home who was expecting me,” he says. “When she opens the door, she attends to me wrapped in a towel, having just showered. She brings me to the bedroom and shows me some things to fix. I had to contain the urge from within, but I’m a correct and professional man.”
Gauna is doing fine with the services he does offer. These days, his bank account balance is higher than it has been in the past.
“This work allowed me to eat and to pay the debts,” Gauna says. “With time, I am better off financially.”
Fernanda Font, GPJ, translated this article.