Take Five: Families are changing, policies impacting them must change too

On the International Day of Families, 15 May, UN Women Chief of Research and Data, Shahra Razavi, talks about women’s rights within families. In many parts of the world, families come in different shapes and forms than what was traditionally viewed as the norm. Families in a Changing World will be the focus of UN Women’s forthcoming flagship report, the 2018 edition of Progress of the World’s Women. With families becoming more diverse, laws and policies must be responsive to the needs of real-world families. The report will look at how laws, policies and public action can support families in ways that enable women’s rights to resources, bodily integrity and voice.


Shahra Razavi. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Shahra Razavi. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

What do we mean by “women’s rights within families”? Why are families important to women’s rights? 

Women's rights to safety, resources and opportunities and their voice and agency can be either realized or violated through gender power dynamics within families. These rights violations can be a matter of life and death: In 2012, 47 per cent of all women who were victims of homicide were killed by an intimate partner or family member (compared to 6 per cent of male homicide victims)[1].

Women’s equal right to resources and assets, which is a critical component of sustainable development, can be compromised when they are pressured by family members to renounce their share of inheritance, or when they are prevented from seeking paid work.  In many countries women’s main avenue for accessing land is through the family, so it matters greatly how laws and social practices shape intra-family resource distribution. 

The real risk to women and girls, and to their families, comes when States turn a blind eye to the violence they experience in the name of ‘privacy’, or when the family choices they make are stigmatized because they do not conform to the norm, and when they are denied equal rights to resources and opportunities in the context of economic and environmental crises, and when their families are torn apart through forced migrations and deportations. 

How have women’s rights within families changed over time? 

Historically, marriage often changed women's legal status dramatically and placed them in a position of dependency. Over the past decades, laws have been reformed in many countries, to recognize domestic violence and marital rape as crimes, and to give women equal rights to enter marriage, seek divorce, make their own reproductive decisions, and to inherit property, get a job, travel and confer their citizenship to their children, for example. These legal reforms have been frequently spearheaded by women's rights advocates, sometimes in alliance with reformist lawyers and state administrators. 

Today, in many parts of the world, women are postponing marriage because they are staying longer in full-time education and building a career. However, marriage and motherhood continue to impose a penalty on women's earnings—women with children have lower earnings compared to childless women, even among workers with comparable qualifications, experience, work hours and jobs. 

In the meantime, an increasing number of women are assuming both financial and care responsibility for their children, sometimes in the absence of men.

What are the potential benefits to families when women are economically empowered? 

More women are joining paid work today. In Latin America, for example, the proportion of households where women are the main earner has increased, rising from 28 per cent in 2002 to 32 per cent in 2014. Women's earning capacity, especially if their employment is regular and comes with social protection coverage, not only strengthens their voice and bargaining power within and outside the family, it often enables their families to escape poverty and improve their standard of living.[2]  

When women have control over assets and income it tends to shift resources away from so-called ‘adult goods’ like alcohol and tobacco, and towards food and healthcare, with positive outcomes for children. A recent systematic review of conditional and unconditional transfers, micro-credit programmes and grants for household enterprises, found that transfers and pension payments to women (compared to men) have a more positive impact on child nutrition, health and education, even if positive outcomes are not always guaranteed. 

The ‘gender revolution’, however, is truncated: women have taken on more paid work while continuing to shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care and domestic work. This leaves them very often with less time for self-care, rest and leisure. Men need to take on an equal share of unpaid care work to relieve women and to ensure that care needs are being met. 

How can women’s rights be protected when families are forced apart because of migration or displacement?

In the case of cross-border migration, for example, women's capacity to regularize their legal status (in their own right) and have the right to family reunification is key and its absence likely to put their safety at risk. Immigration laws need to ensure that the fear of being deported or of losing child custody do not keep women with uncertain immigration status in abusive relationships.  

Also important are migrant women’s access to social services for themselves and their dependents—including healthcare, education and childcare, and their ability to obtain employment with social protection that is commensurate with their experience and qualifications. Women who migrate from developing to developed countries are frequently subject to de-skilling because destination countries do not recognize their professional qualifications at par with their own. As a result, they end up in under-paid and under-skilled jobs. 

How do you envision a family that works for women? 

A family that works for women is one where decisions are made democratically, where resources are distributed equally and where both paid and unpaid care work are equally shared between men and women. A family that works for women, ultimately works better for all its members, and can pave the way for a more sustainable, inclusive and democratic society.  It is high time that policies catch up with processes of social change: we need dynamic policies that are responsive to the needs of real-world families, in a manner that provides effective protection to all women and girls and enables them to make meaningful choices.  


[1] UN DESA (2017). The Sustainable Development Goals Report 2017

[2] UN Women (2017). Progress of Women in Latin America and the Caribbean 2017. Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights