Families in a Changing World

Special Advisor to SI Advocacy, Linda Witong, reviews the recent UN Women report, ‘Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World’.

“It has been observed that the world is rapidly changing and families and the role of women and girls within them, are not immune to these changes: “Families today are at the forefront of many challenges. They are torn apart in the midst of protracted conflicts, humanitarian crises and population movements that are increasingly regulated by migration and refugee policies that undermine family life. These shocks come on the heels of a lingering global recession, reinforced by austerity measures that have wreaked havoc on people’s livelihoods and eroded some of the social policy support that families, particularly women, received”. “Today, there is no ‘standard’ family form”. In order for laws and policies to support families and meet the needs of all their members so that families can continue to be a vital fundamental unit of society with enormous significance in our changing world, these laws and policies must evolve and adapt.

Armed with both global and regional data, the UN Women’s new 287 page report “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World”, proposes  solutions to these challenges in the form of a comprehensive agenda which offers innovative programs, best practices and extensive research for key policy actors – including national governments, gender equality advocates, private sectors and international agencies – in order to make human rights a reality for all women and girls, no matter what changes they face or what kind of family they live in.[1]

Chapter one begins this analysis by giving an historical perspective on the patriarchal foundations of families and explains how Human rights instruments provide a strong framework for women’s and girls’ rights in families based on the principles of equality and nondiscrimination, the right to live a life free from violence, and the best interest of the child. However, chapter one also observes that Patriarchy continues to exist in laws and social norms and that, despite progress, it is still in evidence in many countries as a instrument which enables families to continue to be “contradictory spaces” for women. For example, chapter one and its subsequent chapters illustrate that, while families may be the site of love, nurturing and solidarity for a woman or a girl; they may also be the place where women or girls are most likely to experience violence and discrimination.

The report illustrates that globally “families have experienced deep transformations over the last decades—including decreasing fertility rates and population ageing, rising age at first marriage, increasing proportions of divorced, separated and cohabiting women, and reductions in household size—all of which have distinct and contradictory consequences for gender equality”.[2]

Yet despite the global changes described in chapter one, while marriage remains nearly universal in some regions, the diversity of household types across regions runs counter to the expectation that with economic development there would be convergence towards a family model consisting of a husband, wife and young children. This report observes that, while this family form accounts for over a third of all households globally, the majority of living arrangements are more complex. A more accurate picture of family life today includes extended households, lone parents, a rise in the number of elderly people who are living alone, same-sex couples, parents living with their adult children and children living with their grandparents.[3]

Chapter 1 and 2  present a in-depth analysis dealing with the significant changes which have influenced whether, when, and with whom women and men form intimate partnerships. E..g We see that cohabitation is on the rise, and that in some regions, an increasing number of women are delaying or opting out of marriage altogether. Greater gender equality has helped drive sweeping changes resulting in lower fertility, lower rates of marriage, more divorce and increasing cohabitation. In many regions however, there is greater continuity: marriage remains the norm and divorce is rare and often stigmatized. In addition, while there has been a rise in women’s age at first marriage everywhere, globally, one in five women aged 20–24, were still married under the age of 18.  Couples living with their children are still the most common household form, making up 38 per cent of all households. Yet extended families (27 per cent), single person (13 per cent) and lone parent families (8 percent), the majority headed by women, are also now significant shares of households globally. Moreover, single parent households include 84% which are women. Families which are composed of heterosexual or same-sex couples now exist with or without children and are common in many regions. In ageing societies, single-person households are also becoming increasingly prevalent.[4] Given their greater longevity, women are over-represented among older persons in all countries, and are more likely to live alone. Women also represent more than 60 percent of those above age 80.[5] Finally, the rise in divorce rates is viewed as being one of the most visible features of family change in most regions since the 1980s.The result?  According to the report the liberalization of divorce laws in some developed countries has led to lower rates of suicide by women, lower incidence of reported domestic violence and fewer instances of women being murdered by their spouses.[6]

Chapter 2 also discusses the importance of gathering accurate and relevant data in order to ensure that women and girls enjoy their human rights and benefit from public policies or programs no matter what kind of family they belong to.[7]

UN Women, ‘Progress on the World’s Women: Families in a Changing World’. Click the image to access report.

Chapter 3 looks at the factors that enable or constrain women’s ability to enter partnerships of their choosing, if and when they want; how control over reproductive choices shapes their rights, voice and agency within partnerships; and the conditions under which women can leave unsatisfactory relationships, and re-partner if they wish. The chapter also identifies key areas for public action so that women can enjoy more gender egalitarian relationships, including reform of family laws, and investments in family planning and secondary education.[8] For example, although 42 countries have taken steps to legally recognise diverse partnership forms, including cohabiting couples, providing protection and rights to women in those relationships, family laws, which govern marriage, divorce, child custody and guardianship, adoption, and inheritance, still  include gender discriminatory provisions in many parts of the world as such, further progress is urgently needed.Access to quality education, including comprehensive sexuality education is still being required as it enables women to make empowered choices about partnerships and reproduction. Schools should also be welcoming to pregnant girls and young parents.[9]

Chapter 4 deals with the importance of women’s financial independence, whether through earnings, assets or entitlements to social protection. It observes that independent access to income, through employment, assets or social protection, is important for women’s equality in intimate relationships, strengthening their bargaining position and enabling them to exit partnerships if they need to. Yet prevailing economic conditions, negative social, religious and cultural norms and growing inequality create many challenges for women or girls as well as their families in achieving these goals.Where female labour force participation is stagnant, the quality of available jobs is poor, and wages are insufficient for a decent standard of living. Even where women are in the labour market in ever greater numbers, marriage and childbearing often dampen their access to paid work. Moreover, when relationships break down or a partner dies, women, particularly those with young children, are especially vulnerable to poverty. In addition, lone parents, the majority of whom are women, are much more likely to live in poverty than two-parent families, because they often survive on a single income and lack social protection coverage and childcare support.[10]

Chapter 5 discusses the fact that the primary responsibility for the care of children and adults is is still assigned to women, often as a non-negotiable part of being a mother, wife or daughter. Globally, women still do three times as much unpaid care and domestic work as men. The chapter explores gender and other inequalities in the provision of unpaid care, and how these arrangements are impacted by social norms, socio-economic and demographic factors and public policies. For example, it also recommends the need for greater public investment not only in early childhood education but in care services which not only address the need for children, or dependent adults but also addresses the increasing need for the care of ageing populations not only in high income countries but also, in the coming decades, care for older persons will become a pressing priority for low- and middle-income countries.[11]

Chapter 6, ‘When Home Is Where The Harm Is’, deals with the darkest manifestation of conflict within families which includes a wide variety of Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG). This chapter focuses on violence and abuse against women and girls in the family. Despite the recognition that VAWG is a global human rights violation, a systemic manifestation of gender inequality and a public health concern, rather than a ‘private matter’ or an individual pathology which creates aN expectation of government action and commitment to its elimination in the family and beyond, VAWG in the family remains pervasive and persistent. Laws and policies to address VAWG in the family are increasingly being put in place across the globe. Yet, there remain many inconsistencies and gaps in legal protection due to inadequate implementation of laws and policies; insufficient resourcing, which has been exacerbated by austerity policies; and the persistence of norms and attitudes that justify, minimise and normalise violence. For example, substantial barriers exist to improving the quality and reach of services to respond to VAWG in all countries as the allocation of resources to prevent and respond to VAWG in the family has not matched the scale of the problem. Austerity, a near universal prescription in response to recurrent financial crises, is an ominous impediment to making progress on VAWG as the required services are always the first under threat when budget cuts are on the table.[12]

Some of the statistics mentioned in this report need to be mentioned even in such a short summary as this. he shocking pervasiveness of intimate partner violence means that statistically, home is one of the most dangerous places to be for a woman. For example, violence in the family is frequently lethal: in 2017, The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) estimated 58 per cent of all female victims of intentional homicide were killed by a member of their own family, amounting to 137 women killed each day. More than a third (30,000) of the women intentionally killed in 2017 were killed by their current or former intimate partner. In addition, over their lifetimes, around one in three women can expect to experience physical or sexual abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. Globally, 17.8 per cent of ever-partnered women aged 15–49 have been subjected to sexual and/or physical violence perpetrated by an intimate partner in the previous 12 months. Women’s experiences of Intimate Partner Violence (IPV) vary by age. Available data disaggregated by age for 53 countries show that IPV is most prevalent among women aged 20–24, with 22.8 per cent of women in this age group having experienced some form of such violence within a 12-month period. Its prevalence remains high for other younger age groups, with 19.8 and 21.5 per cent of women and girls in the age cohorts of 15–19 and 25–29, respectively, reporting being subjected to physical or sexual violence by a current or former partner in the last 12 months. After the age of 29, prevalence rates begin to decrease, though still, 16.5 per cent of women in the oldest age group analysed (aged 45–49) experienced some form of IPV within the year preceding the survey. Data on violence experienced by women older than 50 are limited because most population-based surveys use the 15–49 age range. It is important to fill this data gap given older women’s heightened vulnerability to violence, abuse and neglect. [13]

Due to their gender, girls are also at risk of specific forms of violence in the family such as child marriage, which was is discussed in great detail in Chapters 2 and 3. Female genital mutilation, a harmful practice that is perpetrated by families against girls, continues to persist at alarming levels, although there has been a decline in recent decades. Around 2017, one in three girls aged 15 to 19 had been subjected to female genital mutilation in the 30 countries where the practice is concentrated, compared to nearly one in two around 2000.[14]

Evidence also indicates that there is an overlap between violence against women and violence against children in the same household. The report noted that the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates that, worldwide, 250 million children aged 2 to 4 experience physical punishment by caregivers (around 6 in 10); close to 300 million (3 in 4) children experience physical punishment and/or psychological aggression (violent discipline) by their caregivers on a regular basis. Further, globally, 1 in 4 (176 million) children under the age of 5 live with a mother who is a victim of IPV.[15]

Chapter 7 addresses the changing geography and drivers of migration. It notes that in 2017, international migrants made up 3.4% of the world’s population or 257.7 million people. In 2017, 132 million people migrate to the same geographic region as the place of their origin. It also appears that it is internal migration that is the most common form of migratory movement as according to the last year in which data was gathered (2013) there were at least 762 million internal migrants worldwide. The US is the only developed country in the 10 highest volume corridors with large movements of people from China, India and Mexico. Finally, in 2017 alone, 16.2 million people were forcibly displaced from their homes by persecution, climate-related disasters, protracted conflict and other types of violence, which constituted a record breaking figure for the fifth year in a row; the majority of these people were internally displaced people.[16]

Chapter 3 also addresses the motives behind women’s need to migrate which may be driven by a variety of reasons including the need to escape conflict, violence, or restrictive social norms, or to secure a better future for themselves and their children. Women are about half of all migrants globally. Migration can be a pathway to increase women’s access to resources, but it can also entail risks and costs for women, whether they are in transit or the destination, and upon return. This chapter also addresses the need of women and their families to navigate a complex web of policies and regulations, which tend to reinforce existing inequalities, on the basis of gender, socio-economic class, and family form. For example, present migration policies often force migrants, including women, to live away from their families sometimes for many years giving rise to family conflict over provision of care for dependants left behind or how remittances are spent. Discriminatory migration regulations can also weaken women’s bargaining power in families. For example, by tying their migration status to a resident or citizen spouse, by restricting their access to paid work or by denying access to social protection when a relationship breaks down or in cases of violence. It can also lead mothers and their children to migrate through irregular channels, putting them at risk.[17] To respond to these challenges, the chapter highlights the crucial role of civil societies and key social and economic policies that can ensure that the human rights of migrant women and their families, irrespective of their legal status, are protected.[18]

The final chapters deal with explaining how it is affordable for most countries to include the key elements of the family-friendly policy packages recommended in this report and gives examples of how these policies would create new employment, taxes and social security revenue for countries.[19]

Policy insights and recommendations from across the chapters are brought together in Chapter 8 where it recommends that there are two mutually reinforcing ways that States can support the realisation of human rights within diverse families: which are by setting norms and laws for gender equality in family life to create a level playing field; and by providing support, resources and services to enable families to thrive, care for and nurture their members. These two broad areas are elaborated through eight recommendations:[20]

  1. Establish family laws that recognise diversity and promote equality and non-discrimination.
  2. Ensure high quality, accessible public services to support families and gender equality. Here, prior chapters warned that there are limits to what families, even egalitarian ones, can do when they are stripped of socio-economic support and a conducive normative and legal environment. It also acknowledged that it was unrealistic and risky to assume that family members can provide an unlimited supply of care for one another, especially when much of this work continues to fall on the shoulders of women and girls. To be able to provide care and sustenance for their members, families required a range of inputs: decent jobs and viable livelihoods, social protection systems and public services that are accessible, affordable and meet quality standards. Without such inputs, those who are privileged would transmit their privileges to their children, while others, despite their best efforts, would face an uphill struggle and, in the absence of such solidaristic systems, such families would continue to run the risk of being a key transmitter of inequality from one generation to the next”.[21]
  3. Guarantee women’s access to adequate, independent income.
  4. Support families to care by providing, time, money and services.
  5. Prevent and respond to violence against women in families.
  6. Implement policies and regulations that support migrant families and women’s rights.
  7. Invest in gender-sensitive data on families and households.
  8. Ensure resources are in place for family-friendly policies.

Finally, while it was acknowledged that States had the main duty to assure that women and girls’ human rights were implemented and respected, many other actors needed to be involved in bringing about these changes as they too had a responsibility to uphold women and girls’ rights. They included private businesses, strong, autonomous women’s organisations; gender equality advocates in strategic positions within ministries, parliaments and the state, feminist and women’s rights organizations, academia, progressive political parties and trade unions[22]“.

[1]UN Women Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World” page 14, 2019.

[2] Ibid page 69

[3] Ibid page 69

[4] Ibid page 16

[5] Ibid page 41

[6] Ibid page 16

[7] Ibid page 69

[8] Ibid page 100

[9] Ibid page 75

[10] Ibid page 107

[11] Ibid page 141

[12] Ibid pages 175-176 and 197

[13] Ibid pages 16, 175-181

[14] Ibid page 182

[15] Ibid page 182

[16] Ibid pages 2016-210

[17] Ibid e.g. pages 203-204

[18] Ibid page 227

[19] Ibid page 229

[20] Ibid page 236-240

[21] Ibid page 22 and page 236

[22] Ibid page 240-241


  1. Lori Blair 6 months ago 26th July 2019

    The size of this report was daunting – 287 pages! Thank you Linda – for this fantastic summary and helping to point me to places I should focus my reading!

    • Sarah Wilkin 6 months ago 29th July 2019

      Glad you can make use of this summary Lori


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