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Family Matters No. 29 - August 1991

Family values in the International Year of the Family 1994

Don Edgar


The Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies states that the Institute's view is that better public understanding of the many factors affecting marital and family stability will improve family wellbeing. 'We do not believe that all forms of family behaviour are acceptable. Far from it. Violence, abuse, inequality and subjugation mar the lives of many families. But we do believe that the family unit is central to society because it is constructed, interpreted and transmitted from one generation to another. The family is both individual and societal at one and the same time. It is not a passive vehicle for ideological or social forces, though it can work that way. Rather, the family is an active crucible in which both personality and society are forged, in which we hammer out in constructive real life action how our lives will be led, given the resources and constraints that limit our control, and given the wider sources of change that compel us to accept, adapt or resist.' The author concludes by reviewing some of the Institute's research from the perspectives of valuing the family, and family values.

Because of the United Nations' reach into underdeveloped countries, the theme chosen for the International Year of the Family 1994 (IYF94) is Families in the Development Process, also described as 'Family resources and responsibilities in a changing world'.

In Australia, this theme will obviously take its own form, but still with a focus on increasing public awareness of, and developing policies that recognise, the central place of family life in child, moral and economic development, and personal and social wellbeing.

The key UN objectives for 1994 are to increase policymakers' awareness of family issues and to ensure that all policies promote family wellbeing and strengthen family support. It is hoped the year will encourage families to participate in the decisions that affect them, discourage family dependence on the state, enhance families' autonomy and encourage more responsible parenthood. Close attention will be paid to the changing status of women.

Subsidiary objectives, seen as means to these ends, include better information and research worldwide on family structures and functions, plus more systematic evaluation of the effects on families of existing policies and programs.

The Australian Institute of Family Studies has agreed to assist the United Nations Office at Vienna and the coordinator of International Year of the Family 1994, Mr Henryk J. Sokalski, to establish a worldwide network of institutes and researchers on family issues. Mr Sokalski is the director of the Social Development Division and can be contacted by writing to the United Nations Office, PO Box 500, A-1400 Vienna, Austria.

I am also preparing a paper, with Professor Wilfried Dumon of Belgium, Professor Louis Lenero Ottero of Mexico and Professor Laszlo Cseh-Szombathy of Hungary, on issues such as conceptualisation, typologies, structures and functions concerning the family, in order to establish a general approach to the matter to be pursued by the organisations and agencies of the United Nations.

Clearly 'the family' is a huge topic and almost everything touches on the support of family life, but the UN documents discuss the following as 'key issues' for 1994.

  • The family's role in the moral strength of society, through the socialisation of children and the responsibilities of caring.
  • The family's caring functions, both as its own social welfare safety net and as the main 'welfare' institution in society. In this regard, all social welfare strategies should focus on strengthening families, not on making or keeping them dependent; all programs and social policies should be designed to enable people to do things, rather than doing things for people, to enhance their ability to solve problems.
  • Balancing individual freedoms with a sense of personal responsibility for families, community and nation.
  • Helping women and men combine family and vocational responsibilities.
  • Developing policies based on an accurate assessment of dominant and newly emerging family patterns and models, and of the support functions they are actually performing or capable of.
  • Better integration of services.
  • Family planning.
  • Family violence and the need for protection and prevention.
  • The crucial role of non-government organisations in family support.
  • The developmental dimension of families as agents of change, especially in relation to improving their living environment.
  • The role of the family in teaching children values and behaviour that exemplify the equitable sharing of male and female roles.

Stronger families are seen as the most effective preventative measure against instability, crime, juvenile delinquency, drug and alcohol addiction, and lack of care for dependent family members, children, the aged and the disabled. It is seen as important that International Year of the Family 1994 encompasses the diversity of family forms and cultures. The family is seen not simply as the sum of individual family members but as a unit involving a set of relationships and processes.

Ten major themes for the year have been chosen.

The first is families as agents for protecting human values, cultural identity and historical continuity.

The second theme deals with the economic functions, condition and status of families in terms of family resources, responsibilities, and intra- familial support systems; familial and work responsibilities; families in poverty, destitution and other marginal situations; families as income- generating enterprises; and health, nutrition and planning.

The third theme is education - the family as a supportive environment for learning - while the fourth theme concerns family law, and basic social, cultural and political values as they apply to families.

The fifth and sixth themes are violence and the family, and its prevention; and family dissolution and its reduction.

The seventh theme considers individual family members, including issues such as men and more responsible parenting; women exploring new opportunities; dependent family members, their rights and support mechanisms; and youth, education and employment as the basis for adult family life.

The eighth theme is developmental social welfare, with preventive support as the goal. The ninth is policies for families and the tenth is research and information.

The UN papers, because of the cultural diversity of families, eschew any narrow definition of 'family' and insist that activities for the year must be devised at the national, regional and local level.

The UN hopes 'to highlight the importance of the family, promote a better understanding of its functions and problems, and strengthen national institutions to formulate, implement and monitor policies in respect of the family'.

In Australia, the Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health, Housing and Community Services, Mr Brian Howe, announced recently that the Federal Government would draw up an 'Agenda for Families' before 1994 that would be designed to ensure that jobs, health, housing and education services are accessible to all Australian families.

It is not known yet whether the Government will follow the UN call to 'identify a focal point office or person for the year', or establish a national coordinating mechanism that would specify projects and programs to be implemented.

In the meantime, this Institute is closely involved with the UN Office at Vienna and is happy to provide information as it becomes available. We plan to focus our work towards 1994 on conceptualising family policy issues, especially around the notions of care, family support and the public/private partnership of responsibility for family wellbeing.

We have also booked the National Convention Centre in Canberra for a possible Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP) regional conference from 7-11 November 1994 to wind up the International Year of the Family.

Our staff and board discussions have stressed the need to 'celebrate' family life as well as look at the problems that families face. We would hope 1994 offers an opportunity to reformulate family policies and family structures in a way that is positive for all family members, within a more supportive social context.