The International Day of Families has arrived west of the dateline and has been greeted with silence by leading dailies Down Under. A Google search yields little other than links to the sponsoring United Nations body, a handful of NGOs and government departments. If there was a press release from the UN it has gone in the bin.
Would this happen on the international day of women, or gender diversity, or climate change awareness, or “save the Tasmanian Devil”? Hardly. There would at least be a token gesture, even if the news editor thought another international day of something was a big yawn.
The news blackout is more ominous this year since it is the 20th anniversary of the first International Year of the Family and a special UN observance with implications for bigger agenda items. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon has proclaimed: “As we strive to usher in a more sustainable future, achieve the Millennium Development Goals, shape a new development agenda and combat climate change, let us mobilize the world’s families.”
Mobilise the world’s families – how? Through the bush telegraph? I have had a Google alert in place for news about IYF2014 for several weeks and all that has come through is a few reports about the Year of the Family Farm. (Here’s something fresh from the Daily Telegraph I have just stumbled upon.)
It’s high time for a mobilisation of the family minded. Assailed by economic change, demographic change and change in the very concept of what a family is, mums and dads have every reason to unite in a movement to define and defend the institution that the UN’s basic charter itself calls, “the natural and fundamental group unit of society” – and one, by the way, “entitled to protection by society and the State.”
Economic change: The general financial crisis and Great Recession have brought hardship to families in parts of Europe on a scale not experienced since the Great Depression. Unemployment or underemployment of young adults is demoralising them, burdening their parents, wasting their education (for which they may be heavily indebted) and preventing them from founding families of their own.
Changing technology and globalisation of manufacturing has put many men on the scrapheap of employment. Mothers have to work, often at low-paid jobs, whether they want to or not, to put bread on the table and pay the rent. The job market on the whole is not geared to the needs of working mothers and, even where fathers are the main breadwinners, the greater involvement of dads in the raising of children and tasks of the home.
These are themes of the UN agenda for families that we should be debating vigorously this year because of their impact on the health of the family, the rising generation and of society itself.
Demographic change: Societies the world over are ageing. Families are shrinking in size and in many cases are unstable or broken. Globalisation of labour means that many are also scattered. Children are growing up in many cases with neither emotional or financial security and face a future in which they are expected to shoulder the burdens of an ageing population while struggling to maintain a family of their own.
The UN says we should be thinking seriously about intergenerational solidarity – basically, the family’s role in looking after both young and old. How much have you heard about that lately?
The concept of family: The family “brand” has been severely damaged by developments over recent decades – the pill, the sexual revolution, no-fault divorce, displacement of marriage by cohabitation, single motherhood, reproductive technology, and now, same-sex “marriage” complete with adoption and child-manufacturing rights.
If Coca Cola if local started selling Tasty Treats alongside bottles of brown liquid and telling us they were just as much “the real thing” as Coke, we would think them ridiculous and their brand recognition would sink to zero. But legislators can approve an artificial version of the family and we are expected to carry on as though nothing had happened.
Instead, we should be debating what this revolution means for the future of the family — above all for children, who are its most vulnerable members — and society at large.
Unfortunately this is not something that the UN wants to address in this Year of the Family so the onus falls heavily on family groups and advocates, who can expect little or no help from the media.
For all that, there are still plenty of people who believe in the power of the family brand. The New Zealand Minister of Finance will deliver his government’s budget tonight and there likely will be a few little presents in it for families, such as an extension of tax breaks and of maternity leave. The media will cosy up to a few families to see what they think of it. Politicians believe in the family especially in election year (as it is here).
There are even people who see the point of UN observances, even when they are roundly ignored by the media and most governments. One of these optimists is Ignacio Socias, who represents an international federation (IFFD) of like-minded groups reaching about 50,000 people a year through family development programmes. The IFFD has consultative status with the UN Economic and Social Council and Socias and colleagues have been working hard to make IYF2014 fruitful for the family.
And there are some fruits, although they are not visible to most of us. These efforts have, for example, been partly responsible for language in key documents about building a “family perspective” into national policies, and into the new “Sustainable Development Goals” that will take the place of the Millennium Development Goals of the past 15 years. In other words the family perspective would become the equivalent of the environmental or gender perspective – a huge step.
The IFFD has also encouraged a broadening of the concept of social exclusion to include family breakdown as a contributing factor to poverty and marginalistion.
In an interview published last week by the UN Social Development Network Socias emphasised that the “best interests of the child” as laid down in the Convention on the Rights of the Child should be able to settle disputes about the family. He also pointed out the importance of parenting programmes to strengthen families to do their job in society and prevent both family breakdown and the need for government interventions.
Anyone familiar with UN processes will recognise the importance of such contributions from within the system as opposed to criticisms from without. Both are necessary.
Most of us, though, will have to work harder at national and local levels to mobilise families and bring the burning questions about its future in front of the public. The good news is that although one more international family day has passed under the radar, there is still half a year of IYF2014 to go. Let’s make the most of it.
Carolyn Moynihan is deputy editor of MercatorNet