Changing families in changing societies


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Content type
Family Matters article

April 1992


The author presents an overview of the Changing Families in Changing Societies conference, held in Brussels in February 1992. Speakers and delegates came from all corners of the world to share information about the issues they face at home, thus providing a comprehensive overview of the global challenges to be faced in the 1994 International Year of the Family, and an appreciation of the many cultural and traditional mores at work.

The Changing Families in Changing Societies conference, held in Brussels from 8-10 February 1992, was a good start to preparations for the International Year of the Family 1994 (IYF94). Speakers and delegates came from all corners of the world to share information about the issues they face at home, thus providing a comprehensive overview of the global challenges to be faced in IYF94, and an appreciation of the many cultural and traditional mores at work.

The conference was organised by the International Council of Women, assisted by UNESCO, UNICEF and the Commission of the European Communities. It opened with an appeal from the ICW president, Lily Boeykins, for the conference to look at the role of fathers in a new light. Boeykins told delegates that the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child was virtually silent on the place and importance of fathers; while the word 'mother' appeared many times in the convention, there were only a couple of references to 'parents' and none to 'fathers'.

Yet again, she said, this indicated the old view that children were only a woman's responsibility. She claimed policy makers had ignored the role of the father and it was time that men were made part of the family again. Parental tasks have to be redistributed as the income-earning role now belongs to both partners.


Henryk Sokalski, the IYF94 coordinator, spoke about the opportunities in 1994 to promote women's rights and a more egalitarian family life. The main goal, he said, was to encourage governments to develop policies and programs that would last beyond the rhetoric of IYF94.

He listed seven key targets for the new egalitarian family: shared responsibility; mutual respect; trust and support; non-threatening behaviour; honesty and accountability; negotiation and fairness; economic partnership and responsible parenting. With such a base for children to learn from, families may cease to be patriarchal and violent, as they still are in many countries. Sokalski argued that inter- dependencies define family life and so family policies must foster new roles for men.

Ms Sellami-Meslem, the Director of the UN Division for the Advancement of Women and an outspoken feminist from Algeria, called for positive action in IYF94 to ensure that the rights of women were shored up by expanding the positive role of men and fathers in the family. She said family policy was closely tied to policies for women because without changes in the nature of the workplace, family life and the roles of men, there can be no true emancipation for women.

Speakers from Africa and South America described how many family problems in their countries stemmed from the disruption of traditional structures by colonial conquest. Mr Bekombo, the director of the Centre National de Recherche in Nanterre, said marriage in many African countries was not an individual matter, but a social act in which groups concluded an alliance. Kinship systems are both polygamous and matrifocal; biological fathers have much looser ties to their children and it may be that a brother or maternal uncle will be the social father.

Professor Lewanika, Professor of Child Development and a Member of the Zambian Parliament echoed this different attitude to 'family' when describing family policies south of the Sahara where use of the word 'parent' included aunts and uncles, grandparents, brothers and sisters, and there was no such thing as the extended family; rather all members, all kin, were the family.


Traditionally, children were the lifeline giving meaning and continuity to the society, and they were nurtured, trained and protected with their future parental roles in mind. As a result, there were no orphans and no neglected children. In the colonial era, this structure broke down as men went to work in urban areas where only housing for men was provided, thus weakening their family role. The structure was further undermined when schools were built outside villages, removing children from familial influence. There are now enormous problems with abandoned children but Lewanika argued that children may well be the starting point for family policies because African tradition means that the whole family, not just the mother, can be involved in solving children's and family problems.

A similar picture of disruption emerged from Magdalena Pinera from Chile, an adviser to the Minister of National Service for Women. Latin American natives traditionally were very egalitarian, with men and women sharing agricultural and domestic chores as well as the rearing of children. A patriarchal structure came with the Spanish conquest and there was a huge movement of people from rural to urban areas. Today, there is a high proportion of de facto relationships, characterised by violence and insecurity; birth control and sex education are not available and the teenage pregnancy rate is high; women are often left to cope alone and forced to seek extended family help or successive male partners to survive; and women are often the sole workers in low paid jobs but this involves a degree of male violence and alcoholism as men resent their impotence as providers.

But Pinera said the importance of the family in South America had not declined because fidelity, solidarity and kin networks were highly valued, and there was still a core of affective relationships and cultural transfer. She claimed that the importance of children was very strong, that there were open and egalitarian relations between parents and children and that many children were cared for by grandmothers. Rather than an 'empty nest', Pinera said she would describe many South American families as a 'warm bed'.


In eastern Europe, the collapse of the communist system is threatening the stability and resilience of the family. Katja Boh, a Professor of Sociology and the newly appointed Minister for Social Security in Slovenia, reported that abortion has again become an issue. However, housing shortages, widespread unemployment and soaring prices make having second and subsequent children a nightmare, and without the child care provided under socialist regimes, women are further hindered in finding work outside the home.

Boh argued that the family as an institution has always been highly valued by eastern Europeans, and kin networks continue to be indispensable to housing and care, but her fear is that economic strains may weaken these ties and the new liberation will turn into a new and repressive conservatism.

The other side of the coin is Finland, which, like other Scandinavian countries, is extremely progressive in its approach to family policy, particularly the relationship between family and work. The Finnish Minister for Social Affairs and Health, Ms Kuuskoski, described the enormous efforts made in the post-war years to transform Finland from an agrarian society to one that enjoys employment, growth and family choice.

Finland has a generous social welfare program, with extensive child care and parental leave provisions. A child home care allowance compensates for loss of income if a parent chooses to stay home to rear children. If parents choose to work, high quality child care is provided. The allowance has strengthened the status of women and equality in Finland, and shows the high value attached to work at home.


The Finnish view is that the family and children represent continuity in society. Modern marriage is very demanding in terms of time and income-earning, so policies are based on trying to ensure the security necessary for lasting human relationships. Welfare services pre-suppose a high level of taxation and social solidarity unfortunately can end quickly when the national budget shows a deficit, but Kuuskoski argued that there can be equity when resources are scarce and there are other values in life than economic values. With women making up one-third of the Finnish Parliament, one certainly got the impression that this more humanistic view of economic and social policies will prevail.

Looking into the future, Dr Kathleen Kiernan of the British Family Policy Studies Centre reinforced the argument put by the Australian paper (see 'A man's place... Reconstructing family realities' elsewhere in this issue) that the key to a more egalitarian family in the 21st Century was not simply sex roles but the structural nature of the relationship between work and family life. Kiernan noted a shift in emphasis from discussion of women and their situation to the situation of couples who share the burdens of work and family life.

In summarising the conference, rapporteurs stressed the need for families to be supported and protected. They insisted that policies should not focus only on the family itself but also upon the surrounding social and economic circumstances.

The conference gained enormous media coverage and was a very positive start to discussions leading towards IYF94. It was notable that this was a top international women's organisation insisting that IYF94 was an opportunity to improve the conditions of women and children by improving the parts played by men as husbands and fathers. The conference gave some real meaning to the IYF slogan: 'The family, the smallest democracy at the heart of society.'