Each year the
United Nations marks the “International Day of Families” – one of 59 such days
on the UN calendar of feasts. It is commemorated on May 15.

In 1994, the UN
held a Conference on the Family – one of the smallest in a decade of
mega-conferences. Subsequently it was decided to set a day aside for its
commemoration, but at some point the UN started celebrating “families” rather
than “the family”. However, the word “families” is definitely not an
improvement on “family.”

What is a family?
The UN today endorses no definition; it is up to each country to determine. There
is simply too much diversity, say its bureaucrats. They have many examples.
There are the Scandinavian countries where cohabitation and out of wedlock
births are common. (The illegitimacy rate has risen to 55 percent of live
births in Norway.) There are African countries where polygamy is common. Indeed,
President Jacob Zuma of South Africa has had five wives: one he divorced,
another died, and the fifth he married in January of this year. There are
Continental countries where divorced and remarried persons often have children
from two or more spouses. Their “families” consist of a lot of “halves” –
half-brothers and half-sisters. President Nicholas Sarkozy of France is
currently married to his third wife and has children from both previous

Of course many
countries do define the family – for data collection at least, if for nothing
else, as in the case of the United States. According to the US Department of
Commerce, “The term ‘family’ refers to a group of two or more persons related
by birth, marriage, or adoption and residing together.” This definition is
useful in compiling household data on a myriad of economic indicators. In 2008
the United States had 78.9 million families. Given the prevailing mores, it may
be legitimate to wonder whether a more “inclusive” definition will surface at
some point.

At the UN there
are always events organized around its “days.” This year, one group of family
NGOs (non-governmental organizations) organized a tripartite panel around the
theme “Changing Families: Transformation and Continuity in Family Structure”. One
of the panelists, perhaps representing the “transformation” element, stated boldly,
loudly and clearly that shortly he would celebrate the 40th anniversary of his
relationship with his partner, punctuating his presentation with hand gestures
that manifested gold bracelets too numerous to count and surely greater than
most women could ever own. He spoke of his community outreach to all “families”.

With compassion
toward all, the UN nonetheless had got it right in the Universal Declaration of
Human Rights, Article 16 (3), “The family is the natural and fundamental group
unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.”

The family is in
the singular – in the Declaration, in nature and in essence. What will it take
for the UN – and governments – to take note?

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist in
New York. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the
United Nations.

Vincenzina Santoro is an international economist. She represents the American Family Association of New York at the United Nations.