Chapter by UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka for Lumos: Gender-Based Discrimination as a Driver for the Institutionalization of Children


First published in Lumos’ publication, A Goal Within Reach: Ending the Institutionalization of Children to Ensure No One is Left Behind, September 2019.

Nyhira and her mother use the Makola Market Childcare Centre in Accra. Photo: UN Women/Ruth McDowall
At Makola Market in Ghana , women traders and vendors are proving that childcare services designed for and managed by the workers themselves have the potential to change women's and families lives. Photo: UN Women/Ruth McDowall

Many children living in orphanages or other institutions worldwide are there not because they have no parents, but because those parents are unable to or cannot afford to look after them [1]. What has made those families unable or unsuitable to look after those millions of children globally? We know that the main drivers of the institutionalization of children—a last resort—include poverty, disability, illness, incarceration, child abuse and neglect. We have to hold our societies to account, both as the places where such desperation and deprivation exist, and as the structure that has the potential to address and amend those drivers.

UN Women’s new research and findings on families in a changing world [2] illuminate aspects of gender-based discrimination and inequalities within families and broader society that go some way to explaining why so many children can end up in institutions and offer insight into what can be changed.

Families are a critical part of the landscape that defines our world. While they can be places of love, care and fulfillment, too often they are spaces where women and girls experience discrimination – and violence - without recourse.

Women and girls are affected by discriminatory laws and the lack of legal protections, often in multiple and accumulating ways. For example, 45 countries still do not have laws specifically protecting women from domestic violence. Some progress has been achieved in the creation of laws addressing marital rape and the repeal of laws that exonerated rapists if they married their victims. Yet, despite progress, over 2.8 billion women and girls around the world live in countries where marital rape is not criminalized. Violence at home remains an important reason to leave it, but many are not able to do so in time. In 2017, an estimated 137 women every day were killed by a member of their own family. Restrictions that hamper women from earning a decent living, from equal pay and pensions, and from holding leadership positions are also rife. For example, close to 40 per cent of countries have at least one constraint on women’s rights to own property. Women do not have the same rights as men to inherit as a spouse in 37 countries; to get a job or pursue a trade or profession in 19 countries; or to get a national ID card in 13 countries.

We recognize that the policies originally designed to sustain, protect and support families may be insufficiently adapted to the families of today. This in part stems from a previous lack of perspective on the kinds of families that make up our societies. Whereas laws predominantly reflect a view of society as being composed of ‘nuclear families’ (two parents with children), the reality today is that this type of family only makes up 38 per cent of the world’s households. The forms of family that cumulatively predominate are far more diverse, including extended family households and single parent households, the latter of which are mostly (84.3 per cent) led by women [3]. More than 100 million mothers manage to continue looking after their children on their own, although at a cost. They experience higher rates of poverty compared to dual-parent households with young children, [4] with the rate of extreme poverty among divorced/separated women double the rate for divorced/separated men.

To support the different forms of family and ensure that everyone’s rights are realized, we recommend gender-responsive social protection systems for all. These would include the kinds of support that families today need, like extra support for lone parents, paid maternity and parental leave; social transfers for all families with children, and adequate pensions. Most countries could implement a package of family-friendly policies, including cash transfers, healthcare, and care services for children and older people for less than 5 per cent of GDP [5].

Eliminating discriminatory laws and enacting laws in support of gender equality is also largely doable and it can happen rapidly. By 2023, in a new strategic approach, we aim to have supported the repeal or revision of discriminatory laws in six thematic areas in 100 countries, at the same time working on the powerful cultural practices that often prevent laws from taking full effect [6]. For example, when a girl’s life is little valued or where there is preference for male children, the result can be rejection of girls at birth. Some 90 per cent of the 11 million ‘abandoned or orphaned’ children in India are girls [7]. Conversely, laws that promote gender equality can yield multiple dividends.

Services such as daycare for children, or social worker support to help connect children and families to appropriate services and entitlements, could make the difference between families remaining in a cycle of poverty and limited opportunity or remaining together and making progress that benefits everyone. This would bring us strides closer to achieving not just Sustainable Development Goal 5 of the 2030 Agenda, but the heart of the Agenda, which is to ‘leave no one behind’.


[1] Csáky, C. Keeping Children Out of Harmful Institutions Why we should be investing in family-based care. Save The Children UK, 2009.

[2] Progress of the World’s Women. Families in a changing world, UN Women, New York, 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Rense Nieuwenhuis and Laurie C. Maldonado, Eds. The triple bind of single-parent families. Resources, employment and policies to improve well-being. Policy Press 2018.

[5] Progress of the World’s Women. Families in a changing world, UN Women, New York, 2019.

[6] Equality in Law for Women and Girls by 2030: A Multistakeholder Strategy for Accelerated Action, New York, 2019. The African Union, the Commonwealth, the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie the Secretaría General Ibero-Americana and UN Women.

[7] The Guardian, ‘From India with Love’, 2007, cited in Csaky, C., Keeping Children out of Harmful Institutions, Save the Children, 2009.