Families have hierarchies and this impacts gender equalityPolicies needed to make households a place where equality and justice for women, too.
A typical picture of a family is one with a mother, father and their children. for years, advertisements and songs portrayed the father as someone who goes out to work, while the mother is usually indoors taking care of the house and children. Or if she is working, it is part-time. this representation of a family is comforting, stable, and predictable. But it is painting an incorrect picture for the majority of families living across the globe.
Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020, Families in a Changing World, UN Women’s flagship report, launched on 25 June, explodes the myth of the ‘nuclear’ family once and for all. Globally, a couple with children makes up only about one-third of households worldwide. The other two-thirds of the families of the world don’t fit the stereotype. Families remain in the central unit of our societies. However without clarity on how they are composed, the policies that determine their support are aimed at a minority, and in many instances, missing the neediest.
We need a reality check. This report provides one.
The vast scale of single mothers bringing up society’s future generations is one aspect: there are more than 100 million lone mothers in the world today. They comprise 84 per cent of all single parents. As populations age, there are increasing numbers of older people living alone. In Europe and North America, more than one-quarter of households are single-person, often elderly people, living on their own. At the other end of the scale, extended families that have drawn in other relatives who need care or support have become almost as common as couples with children, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia which make up another one-third of the families in the world.
All governments recognise the importance of families and their role as the building blocks of societies and economies. But these findings pose a burning question for policymakers: do their policies sufficiently respond to the realities of how families live today? The answer in many cases must be ‘no’. That matters deeply because it means that families are not receiving the support they need, and within those families, it is women and girls that are most disadvantaged by this failure.
The chronic policy neglect of child care services for women who go out to work is one example. One of the big shifts of the past half century has been the entry of women from all walks of life into the labour force. It has changed our workplaces and economies beyond recognition, yet the male breadwinner model dominates policy design despite the reality that most families need two earners. This matters for all families, but it has particularly harsh financial outcomes for lone mother families who have single-handedly need to earn as well as care for the family. Data from 40 countries tells us that lone mothers are twice as likely to live in poverty as compared to ‘couple’ families.
What's more, when it comes to how a family is supposed to be viewed, policymakers need to factor in the fact that home is where women and girls often meet lethal violence. It is also where they first experience discrimination—the kind of treatment which eventually gets normalised, albeit unconsciously. Globally, the number of rates of child marriage is declining, yet, some 12 million girls are married in childhood every year. what’s more, in 2017, every single day, 137 women were killed by a family member. Around one-third of married women in developing countries report having little or no say over their own healthcare. Families can be places of love, caring and sharing, but they can also fail girls and women. While cherishing families, we must also see them clearly for what they are.
Families will be richly diverse in composition across the world. Yet that variety is not accommodated in family laws and policies, which urgently need reform. This means amendments to ensure that women can make choices about marriage and motherhood. It means laws that prohibit harmful practices like child marriage and other forms of violence, including marital rape, as well as services to enable women to leave violent relationships if they need to. And it means a package of social policies, including not only care services but also family benefits, delivered directly into women’s pockets.
We must implement the policies needed to make households a home where equality and justice prevail for women, and for all.
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is UN Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women.