International Day of Families

  15 May 1996       

      Families: Victims of Poverty and Homelessness                                                                




The Situation

The family is universally recognized as a basic unit of society. In spite of the many changes in society that have altered their roles and functions, families continue to provide the natural framework for the emotional and material support essential to the growth and well-being of their members. Additionally, families are a basic social unit of production and consumption and, as such, are at the heart of the economic process. Their needs must be intimately connected with the objectives of economic and social development, as a minimum standard of progress. In short, families are engines of the economic and social development process, and must be accounted for when establishing policies and priorities for economic and social development.

Families around the world are under sustained and tremendous stress. Economic and political transformations in many parts of the globe, disease, war, poverty, famine and other such forces are taxing them, often beyond their ability to cope. Such pressures are clearly not confined to the developing world as seen by the pressures generated in families by unemployment, drugs, crime, and AIDS.

In short, the challenges that families face in the present-day world and the stress that they undergo are numerous, largely depending upon the level of national socio-economic development and diversification, In performing functions vital to the well-being of its members and society, the family has responded to these changes in ways ranging from adaptation without significant dysfunction to total breakdown.

Poverty – In Latin America, South Asia and the Arab States, poverty is reinforced by the very unequal distribution of assets. The squeeze of external debt servicing on the resources available for human development is particularly severe in Latin America. In Africa, almost two-thirds of the people lack access to safe water, and fewer than half the children attend primary school. The problem of absolute poverty is increasingly concentrated in Africa. Even in East and South-East Asia, where overall economic growth has been fast, half the people still lack access to safe water and basic health care. Over 100 million people live below the poverty line in the industrial market economies. If the USSR and Eastern Europe are included, the number is at least 200 million. Worldwide, over one billion people live in absolute poverty.

Nutrition – Some 180 million children suffer from serious malnutrition.

Education – About a billion adults can not read or write. Well over 100 million children of primary school age are not in school. Disparities between men and women remain wide, with female literacy still only two-thirds that of males. Girls’ primary enrolment rates are a little over half that of boys’, and much of women’s work still remains underpaid and undervalued.

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Some Issues

One of the most noteworthy characteristics of poverty in contemporary society is its occurrence in the midst of widely-disseminated images of opulence and conspicuous consumption, which contrasts poverty with increasingly high expectations and, moreover, sharpen the impression that available material resources are insufficient for forming a family. Poverty affects the formation, structure and functions of families. The proportion of families headed by teenage mothers is growing, apparently as a result of the combination of weaker social control of young women’s sexual behavior, lack of information on pregnancy prevention, etc. With respect to family structure, the stability of family relations is subject to more tensions in poor sectors than in other socio-economic strata, owing to a number of factors. For example, the roles of the various family members often undergo changes that do not conform to the family’s aspirations, but rather to social forces, especially those of the market, over which the poor have little control.

The socialization capacity of families is also directly and indirectly affected by their socio-economic situation. The scarcity of means, the inevitable concentration on problems of daily subsistence, inadequate housing and overcrowding have a direct impact on children’s nutrition, health and emotional and cognitive maturity, and on the family’s capacity to complement the education imparted in the school system or even to keep children in the home, as shown by the phenomenon of street children in many cities of the world.

During the past several decades, numerous families all over the globe have witnessed increasing deterioration in their physical living conditions. The number of families without homes has been on the rise. Today the living conditions of more than a billion people are characterized by the paucity of adequate shelter, absence of clean water, inadequate sanitation and a dearth of proper facilities. The appalling lack of educational and health facilities compounds the situation, severely impairing the quality of life for millions of families and limiting their ability to participate in the development process.

One major force that has contributed to the increasing deterioration of living conditions is rapid urbanization, particularly acute in the developing countries. At least 600 million urban dwellers in developing countries are estimated to live in "life-and-health threatening" situations. Poverty is most visible in the slums and squatters settlements of cities. The face of poverty will become increasingly urban in the twenty-first century.

War and civil strife is also a leading cause of homelessness, especially in Africa. 28 African countries are either producers or recipients of refugees, or both. Seventy-five per cent of the world’s refugees are found in Africa – where armed conflicts, economic deterioration, environmental degradation including flood and drought, systematic human rights abuses and ethnic and religious strife have all contributed to increasing uprootedness among the population. Almost 80 per cent of refugees, internally displaced people and returnees in the continent are women and their children.

The number of homeless is also growing in industrialized countries. The nature of homelessness in industrialized countries is also changing wherein more and more families, mostly women and their children are among the homelessness.

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The Approach

The topic of the family is pivotal to a broad spectrum of social policy and developmental issues. Perhaps no other group lends itself better to a cross-sectoral and integrated approach in dealing with social progress or offers such a unique convergence of numerous issues. In the last two decades, the ever-increasing concern for the fundamental rights and well-being of individuals, particularly those who are disadvantaged, marginalized or discriminated against, as well as the efforts to improve their lot, concurrently has led to the rediscovery of the family.

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Future Priorities

The family, as an evolving social institution, faces a most difficult challenge. Many societies are changing so rapidly that the speed of change alone is a major factor of stress in families. Never before in history have there been so many dramatic changes in such a short time.

Future socio-economic and development policies and programmes will invariably affect families. Therefore, public policy decisions should incorporate a family impact consideration. Even if the policies are not directly addressed to them, organizations and agencies, governmental or non-governmental, national or international, must be encouraged to recognized that their decisions and actions will usually have an impact on families, on how families will be formed, whether they will survive or not, and how well they function as nurturers and providers. The corollary to this goal is the formulation and implementation of family-sensitive policies in family-friendly societies.

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Annex:  Poverty and income distribution

Today, in the early 1990s, about 44% of statistics of Latin America’s population is living in poverty, mostly in urban areas. Since poor households have more children than other households, over half of the population under 14 is in this situation. At the same time, the region has the world’s highest indexes of household income concentration. Although there are no solid grounds for predicting how the progress …..

Table 1: Growth of Real Per Capita Income 1960-2000 *

COUNTRY GROUP 1960-70 1970-80 1980-90 1990 1991 1990-2000 Est.
High Income Countries 4.1 2.4 2.4 2.1 0.7 2.1
Developing Countries 3.3 3.0 1.2 -0.2 -0.2 2.9
Sub-Saharan Africa 0.6 0.9 -0.9 -2.0 -1.0 0.3
Middle East &

North Africa

6.0 3.1 -2.5 -1.9 -4.6 1.7

*Taken from World Bank. World Development Report 1992, p.32.

Another World Bank compilation shows that 47.6 per cent of the population in Sub-Saharan Africa were below the poverty line (approximately $370 annual income per capita) in 1985 compared to 47. per cent in 1990. By the year 2000 the percentage population below the poverty line would rise to 49.7. (World Bank Report 1992, p.30).

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