UN Population Division, Department of Economic and Social Affairs,
with support from the UN Population Fund (UNFPA)

The Family, its Roles, Composition and Structure

                                 IV.  THE FAMILY, ITS ROLES, COMPOSITION AND STRUCTURE

I.       The World Population Plan of Action affirms that "the family is the

basic unit of society and should be protected by appropriate legislation and

policy" (para. 14(g)).  In all parts of the world, families perform important

socio-economic and cultural functions.  In spite of the many changes that have

altered their roles and functions, families continue to provide the natural

framework for the emotional, financial and material support essential to the

growth and development of their members, particularly infants and children,

and for the care of other dependants, including the elderly, disabled and

infirm.  The family in all its forms is the cornerstone of the world

community.  As primary agents of socialization, families remain a vital means

of preserving and transmitting cultural values.  In a broad sense, families

can, and often do, educate, train, motivate and support their individual

members, thereby investing in their future growth and acting as a vital

resource for development.  Families are also important agents of sustainable

development at all levels of society and their contribution in this area is

decisive for its success.  The specific functions of families include

establishing emotional, economic and social bonds between spouses; providing a

framework for procreation and sexual relations between spouses; protecting

family members; giving a name and status to family members, especially to

children; and providing basic care, socialization and education of children.

                             Issue No. 6:  Diversity of family structures and composition

II.      In spite of the almost universally recognized roles attributed to the

family, it is important to acknowledge that there are numerous forms in which

families are organized.  Such variety is concomitant with the multiplicity of

forms of social organization, and cultural and religious values.  In this

respect, the Plan of Action does not endorse any particular form of family

over others.  The family, as a social unit, has been undergoing radical

transformations in the past two decades in its formation and structure due to

the changes in demographic factors as well as major socio-economic changes. 

In the developed countries, with the end of the marriage boom in the post-

1960s, entry into matrimony and hence, the formation of families is

considerably delayed.  Formalized marriage has been losing its status,

especially in Western countries, where cohabitation without marriage has

increased, at least before children are born.  Those changes have been

affecting family formation in general, and particularly have led to a decrease

in the overall prevalence of marriage among women.  The number of divorces has

also been rising in most countries.  Severe inequalities in the division of

labour and in the distribution of power exist also within many families.  The

discussion on children's rights to decide on their own affairs has only begun. 

Egalitarian possibilities for both genders are but words in most families and

a true partnership between men and women on the basis of equal rights and

responsibilities is the challenge of modern families.  Many of those changes

are now beginning to appear in the developing countries.

III.     In the developing countries exhibiting a rapid process of modernization,

the mean age at marriage has been significantly raised, particularly due to a

notable increase in female education, and that has implied a delay in the

formation of families.  Data confirm that in almost all industrialized and

developing countries, between the 1960s and the 1980s, and even more so

between the 1970s and the 1980s, the singulate mean age at marriage of women

increased.   The magnitude of those increments varies, however, from

region to region.  In Africa, despite signs of a trend toward postponement,

the average age at marriage for women is still quite early, hence contributing

to the maintenance of  high fertility patterns in most countries, especially

in sub-Saharan Africa where most countries have a singulate mean age at

marriage below 21 years.  In Latin America and the Caribbean, by the 1980s,

the singulate mean age at marriage usually exceeded 20 years, but the effect

of marriage postponement as opposed to the effect of contraceptive use on

fertility levels is more difficult to ascertain in countries of high

prevalence of consensual and visiting unions.  In Asia, marriages have been

delayed to varying degrees in recent years and by the late 1980s, the

singulate mean age at marriage exceeded 21 years among women, except in

Southern Asia.

IV.      The less developed regions are also characterized by traditionally

larger differences between sexes in the singulate mean age at marriage than

the more developed countries.  During the 1980s, differences exceeding 5-6

years were not uncommon in the former regions, whereas they generally varied

from two to three years in most countries of the latter regions.  Northern

America, Europe and the former USSR have also been characterized by a

considerable increase in mean age at first marriage, a significant decline in

marriage prevalence and an increase in the proportion of those remaining

unmarried.  In the Scandinavian countries, the proportions of those ever-

married are very low.  This increase in the proportion remaining unmarried

may, however, have been largely compensated by the increase in unmarried

cohabitation in those countries (United Nations, 1990).  During the period

under consideration, it can also be observed that Governments have made

important advances in eliminating forms of coercion and discrimination in

relation to marriage.

V.       Family structures and composition are also affected by other socio-

economic and political changes.  In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, some

Asian and African countries experienced large-scale international migration

due to a great shortage of labour in the oil-rich countries and internal

political conflict in some countries of the regions.  Recently, there has been

large-scale migration from Eastern Europe due to recent political changes and

the political conflict in former Yugoslavia.  The effects of these large-scale

migrations on family formation and structure are yet to be known but they 

need to be considered while formulating policies.

VI.      Family formation and structure are also influenced by changes in the

value system of societies.  The process of modernization, in fact, has

increased the value of achieving higher education and entering the labour

market, while the attraction of a traditional child-bearing career for women

has declined and, in fact, an increasing number of women are achieving higher

education and entering the labour market.  These changes in the developed

countries have significantly modified the lifestyles of both men and women and

have produced new levels of aspirations that are concomitant with a smaller

number of children.  Similar trends are gradually appearing in the developing

countries where rapid industrialization and economic development are taking


VII.     The significant breakthroughs in contraceptive technology have made

possible the achievement of low fertility levels in the developed countries

and the initiation of the process of rapid fertility decline in many

developing countries.  Such rapid declines in fertility in some Asian and

Latin American countries have contributed to declines in the size of


VIII.    In all developed countries except in the former USSR, the average

household size declined through the 1970s.  Given the already small size of

households, the absolute changes during that period are small -- in many

cases, between 0.2 and 0.4 persons or less.  But the trend is discernible, and

seems to be continuing through the 1980s in countries where data are

available.  For instance, the North American household has continued to shrink

in size from 3.1 persons in 1970 to 2.7 in 1980, and further to 2.6 persons in

1990.  Reduction in household size is also a trend which characterizes most

countries in Eastern and South-eastern Asia and in Latin America.  China,

which comprises more than one fifth of the world population, had a moderate

size of 4.4 persons per household in 1982 and 4.0 persons in 1990.  The

decline in household size was particularly evident among countries that

experienced a significant decline in fertility.  On the other hand, there are

countries in Africa and in Southern and Western Asia where there were reported

increases in the average size of the household.  For example, the average

household size in Algeria increased from 5.9 persons in 1966 to 7.0 persons in

1987.  In Pakistan, the size has grown from 5.7 persons in 1968 to 6.7 in

1981.  All countries in Western Asia, except Israel and Turkey, have reported

an increase in their already high average size of six or more members in a

household; this is largely due to a decline in mortality among children as

well as the older age groups between the 1970s and the 1980s.

IX.      Household composition varies within and between regions.  In the

majority of African countries, average household size is almost equally

divided between children and adults, with a range of 5-6 members per

household.  In most Latin American countries the mean number of adults per

household in the 1980s was close to 3.0 members and was higher than the number

of children.  Similarly, the majority of Asian countries had 3.0 or more adult

members per household and the mean number of children per household was always

lower than that of adults.  In China, Hong Kong, the Republic of Korea and

Singapore, a small but growing percentage of the urban elderly no longer live

with their adult children.  The norm is, however, still the extended family

and in rural areas there has been little change from the traditional family

structure.  The pattern of household composition observed in the developed

countries is significantly different from that of developing countries.  In

the 1980s the mean number of children per household varied in the narrow range

of 0.5-0.9 and that of adult members was in the range 1.9-2.6; however, most

of the countries had about 2.0 adult members.  The presence of two adult

members per household in the developed countries is an indication of the

predominance of the nuclear type of family; on the other hand, the presence of

more than two or three adult members in a household in developing countries

indicates prevalence of an extended type of family or of a nuclear family with

adult children present.

X.       In the developed countries, the remarkable increase in the number of

one-person households has been another important demographic change which has

contributed to the size reduction of households.  Between the 1970s and the

1980s, the developing countries were experiencing a drastic decline in the

proportion of households of five persons or more, possibly suggesting the

dissolution of the extended type of households.  Also, there has been an

increase in the number of one-person households, although the proportions of

single-person households in the developing countries remain relatively small

as compared to the developed countries.  This tendency is more noticeable in

those developing countries which are engaged in a rapid process of


XI.      From the policy perspective, one notable change in family formation and

structure is the increasing number of households headed by single persons,

particularly women.  Female headship is common in many parts of the world and

its prevalence is growing in many societies, both in the developed and the

developing regions.  The percentage of female-headed households among the

total numbers of households ranges from less than 5 per cent in Kuwait and

Pakistan to 45 per cent in Botswana and Barbados.  A great diversity in the

prevalence of female-headed household is also observed in each region of the

world.  Around 1980, both in Latin America and in Africa, the proportion of

female headed households ranged from 10 to over 40 per cent.  In Asia, the

figures vary within a narrower range at a lower level.  No Asian country

reports more than 20 per cent of their households to be headed by women.  In

the developed countries, during the same period the range of female-headed

households varied from 16 per cent in Spain to 38 per cent in Norway.  The

chance for formerly married women (widowed, divorced or separated) to become

household heads is much higher than for single or married women everywhere in

the world.  The female headship rates for widowed and divorced/separated women

were somewhat higher among the developed countries, where 60 to 80 per cent of

those women were household heads.  The corresponding figures for Latin

American countries fall in the range of 40-60 per cent.  Although the

available data refer only to a limited number of African and Asian countries,

the headship rates for formerly married women greatly varies within the

regions.  These trends are seen as signs of the vitality and resilience that

the family as an institution has shown despite the many pressures and

challenges it has faced.  New forms of family life are developing to meet the

challenges of the modern world.

                                   Issue No. 7: Socio-economic support to the family

XII.     To a large extent, perceptions, attitudes and aspirations affecting

demographic variables are acquired by individuals through their family life. 

Families and broader kinship-based support systems, as noted earlier, provide

the natural framework for the emotional and material custody essential to the

growth and support of their members.  Although the goal that families should

aim at achieving self-sufficiency should be recognized, yet, in many

circumstances, families are not and cannot be wholly self sufficient.  The

reasons for and the solutions to family problems cannot be found solely in the

families themselves, but rather in the socio-economic and cultural context in

which they exist.  This observation highlights the need to develop effective

legislation, family policies, services and benefits aimed at strengthening

basic family functions, taking into account variations in cultural, social and

religious customs, and protecting the basic human rights of family members. 

Beyond this, there is a need to develop "family-sensitive" social and economic

strategies, policies and programmes intended not only at responding to the

needs of vulnerable families, but also at identifying the "family impact" of

policies and programmes more generally.

XIII.    The Plan of Action and the Mexico City recommendations contain a series

of provisions aimed at supporting families in fulfilling their roles in

society (para. 39 and recommendation 34, respectively).  Families have been

affected by the dynamics of the societies where they exist.  Over the past few

decades, the family has undergone varying degree of changes in structure and

functions, largely depending upon the level of national economic development

and diversification.  This process has been accelerated by advances in

technology and changes in mores and values.  In societies that have not been

subject to rapid economic development, urbanization and demographic

transformations, the changes have been less drastic.  In addition to those

long-term sustained influences, some short-term influences, such as the

migration of workers, natural disasters, war and drastic deterioration in

economic conditions, have placed severe pressure on families and family

structure in many developing countries.  In performing functions vital to the

well-being of its members and society, the response of the family to those

changes has ranged from adaptation without significant dysfunction to total

breakdown.  Where the family system has broken down, the pressure on social

institutions has generally been extreme.  In contrast, where supporting social

and economic mechanism were still in place, adaptation has occurred, with less

disruptive effects.

XIV.     In some developed countries both new laws and social welfare programmes

have been instituted to answer some of the problems that have emerged. 

Responses to social and economic changes are still evolving in most societies. 

As the family is such a fundamental unit of society, a more comprehensive

understanding of the consequences of those changes for both individuals and

society as a whole must be sought before the appropriate social mechanisms can

be put in place.  Among the social issues affecting the performance of family

functions today is the increasing number of unprotected families, including

single-parent families headed by poor women, destitute families, families

which are separated by working conditions of their members, refugee and

displaced families, families with disabled members or affected by diseases, as

well as families afflicted by disintegration, domestic violence and child

abuse or neglect.  Of particular importance is the recognition that single

mothers with children form a disproportionate share of the poor.  The economic

and social insecurities associated with the female-headed household is a

matter of great concern, particularly for the development of young children.

XV.      There is a continuing need for data collection and analysis directed

toward monitoring changes in the structure and dynamics of the family, as well

as in the understanding of the ways in which economic and social trends and

policies affect and are affected by changes within families.  Some of the

important areas needing improved understanding are child care arrangements

and, more broadly, the interactions between women's, men's and children's

diverse roles, including their use of time, access to and control over

resources, participation in decision-making processes, and changes in norms,

values and beliefs.

XVI.     Family well-being may depend, to an important degree, on the ability of

families to make informed choices concerning fertility.  Such choice is a

basic right which also has important benefits for maternal and child survival

and health.  Increased efforts are needed to ensure adequate family life

education which should address such issues as reproduction, sexuality, birth-

spacing, information about sexually transmitted diseases (including AIDS), and

the parenting skills which are essential for promoting a deeper understanding

of responsibilities in a familial and interpersonal context, as well as the

promotion of family values.  Families also play a crucial role in meeting the

health requirements of all their members; there is a need to support families

in this vital role. 

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