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