Social and Humanitarian Assistance - The family—society's building block





Although many of the UN's resolutions and instruments deal tangentially with the needs of families, the General Assembly's first formal recognition of the family unit's special status as the basic building block of civilized society came in 1989 when it passed resolution A/44/82 (1989) proclaiming 1994 as the first International Year of the Family. The theme of the year was "Family: resources and responsibilities in a changing world," and its motto was "Building the smallest democracy at the heart of society." In 1993, the General Assembly declared 15 May 1994 the first International Day of Families, to be celebrated annually thereafter.

The General Assembly sought to raise the awareness of governments at the national, local, and regional levels about the threat posed to families and the possible consequences to society of the fragmentation and disintegration of the family unit. The erosion of social safety nets around the world had placed tremendous burdens on families. Abject poverty, which affected 20% of the world population, contributed to the destruction of families, for example, when members left the family unit to search for employment. Studies showed that within the space of a few decades the traditional extended family had shrunk to the nuclear family and finally to the single-parent family. In the United Kingdom alone, half of all births in 1990 were to single women. UN agencies called for recognition of the family's contribution towards achieving human development, alleviating poverty, and providing health care, nutrition, education, shelter, and employment for family members. The UN called for governments to formulate "family-sensitive" national policies and to assess how decisions would affect families.

Rather than try to narrowly define the family, the General Assembly took the broadest possible approach, encouraging celebration of the vast diversity observed in families throughout the world. A study showed that average family size varied from 2.2 members in Sweden to 7.1 members in Iraq. In all industrial countries except the former Soviet Union, the average household size shrank between 1970 and 1990. In the United States the average household shrank from 3.1 persons in 1970 to 2.6 persons in 1990. On the other hand, households grew in size in Africa, south Asia, and the Middle East. In Algeria, for example, average household size grew from 5.9 persons in 1966 to 7 persons in 1987. Despite the many cultural and economic differences in families around the world, according to the Secretary-General, some elements of an international consensus regarding families emerged:

  • • The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the state;
  • • Various concepts of the family exist in different social, cultural, and political systems, but it is recognized that families are basic to the social structure and development of all societies. It is also recognized that families around the world exhibit many common problems.
  • • Gender equality, women's equal participation in employment, and shared parental responsibilities are essential elements of modern family policy;
  • • Families are the fullest reflection, at the grass-roots level, of the strengths and weaknesses of the social and developmental environment; and
  • • Families, as basic units of social life, are major agents of sustainable development at all levels of society, and their contribution is crucial for its success.

Besides four regional preparatory meetings and two nongovernmental events held in 1993 to prepare for the International Year of the Family, the General Assembly held an International Conference on Families in October 1994. The secretariat for the International Year, based in Vienna, coordinated technical cooperation projects in Africa and the countries of the former Soviet Union. A world forum of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) held in Malta in late 1993 called for the UN and its member nations to enter into an ongoing process of building a family-friendly society. It also called for the elaboration of a declaration on the rights and responsibilities of families in the follow-up to the International Year of the Family.

Some of the most important existing international instruments that refer to the family are:

  • • the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights;
  • • the 1966 International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights;
  • • the 1979 Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women;
  • • the 1981 Declaration on the Elimination of All Forms of Intolerance and of Discrimination Based on Religion or Belief; and
  • • the 1989 Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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