Speech: Families can be critical drivers of gender equality, only if decision-makers deliver policies rooted in the reality of how people live today

Keynote speech by Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women at the launch of UN Women’s flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World.


[Check against delivery]

Good morning everyone. It gives me great pleasure to be with you here today to present UN Women’s Flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World.

No institution has more universal and personal significance to each of us than the family.

Families are places of love, where we can go for support and nourishment, especially in times of hardship or conflict; where we may bear and raise children, and care for those in need.

At the heart of this Report is a recognition of the vital importance of families to our cultures and economies, balanced by the knowledge that, all too often, they are also places of violence and discrimination for women and girls.

The shocking pervasiveness of intimate partner violence means that statistically, home is one of the most dangerous places to be for a woman. In 2017, every single day, 137 women were killed by a family member.

We have seen great progress on eliminating discrimination against women in laws, however it is no accident that family laws have been the slowest to change, given that they govern matters like:

  • women’s rights to choose who and when to marry;
  • they provide the possibility of divorce, so that women can escape violent relationships if they need to;
  • they determine whether women can have custody of their children;
  • and they shape women’s access to family resources, including inheritance.

Families can be ‘make or break’ for women and girls, which means that governments have a particular responsibility to safeguard women’s and girls’ rights, not only in the public sphere, but in the home too.

Our message today is that families, in all their diversity, can be critical drivers of gender equality, and broader prosperity, but only if decision-makers deliver policies rooted in the reality of how people live today, with women’s rights at their core.

To support this endeavour, as well as a comprehensive family-friendly policy agenda, this report delivers a reality check.

The reality check is about the diversity of the families of today. Although the experience of family life is essentially universal, families themselves do not take one form.

The report presents a brand-new global dataset, which we have created in collaboration with UN DESA, which shows authoritatively, for the first time in a report of this kind, that families are diverse.

Across the world, we see families where couples take care of young children—they make up about one third of households; but we also see extended households that include grandparents and other relatives (almost one third), individuals and couples who are child-free (around a quarter altogether), and women raising children on their own (around 8 percent).

Lack of data means that we aren’t able to quantify accurately the growing number of families that take different forms, including LGBT families or transnational families, who in the context of migration may live apart from one another. But we know they exist.

The reason why capturing this rich diversity matters is because, unless and until decision-makers take into account the realities of how families live today, their policies will fail to hit the mark.

To take one example: What would a policy agenda look like if it truly responded to the realities that lone mothers face? Our data show that there are at least 101 million women in the world who are raising children on their own.

These women are twice as likely to be living in poverty as couple families. Contrary to some stereotypes, most lone mothers are in paid work. They are extremely time constrained because they are doing all the earning and all the caring.

For these families, harking back to the idealized notion of the ‘nuclear family’ and formulating policies accordingly, is not going to work.

The kinds of policies that we recommend in the report:

  • maternity and parental leaves and benefits, that are accessible to those in informal employment;
  • high quality, accessible and affordable childcare services; family benefits, paid into the pocket of the person that actually does the care work;
  • universal pensions, so that after a lifetime of raising the next generation and poorly paid employment, lone mothers have the possibility of a dignified retirement

These policies are good for all women and families, but they are especially vital for lone parents.

Another reality that many countries are facing is population ageing.

In 2019, people over the age of 60, account for about one eighth of the global population. This is expected to increase to about one fifth in 2050. In spite of improvements in health and life expectancy, many of these people will require long-term care at some point.

Because women tend to live longer than men, demographic ageing has a woman’s face.

With declining birth rates and more women opting out of marriage and motherhood, we are likely to see a growing number of women living alone in older age, in need of care, but without family members to provide it.

We can’t wish this away. This is a reality that many countries will need to face, and soon. Our report offers solutions to this problem too, in the form of quality care services for older persons.

The policies I have mentioned are a part of a comprehensive family-friendly policy agenda that is proposed in the report. The agenda is based on the reality of family diversity and the imperative to advance gender equality for women and girls no matter what kind of family they live in.

It spans violence prevention and response, family law reform, investments in public services especially reproductive healthcare, education and care, and social protection. 

We show that these policies are vital, effective, and affordable.

Based on a costing exercise done specifically for this Report, we show that a family-friendly package of policies—including family benefits, pensions, healthcare and care services—would cost less than 5 per cent of GDP for over half of countries with data. 

Such a policy package would have immense benefits in terms of women’s rights, child development as well as significant employment generation through the care sector.

The report shows that governments are making progress on these laws and policies in every region. I hope that you will all use the report, to be inspired by what is possible and work for change we need to see.

I want to end by saying: we are launching this report in a context in which the issue of families has become very contentious. Here in the UN, we have seen a highly polarized debate which, frankly, has been very unproductive.

Let us build bridges and find common ground on the many issues and policies that are central to advancing gender equality and supporting families, that we all care about.

When we think of the universal commitment to Agenda 2030 and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals, so many of those targets on child marriage, on reproductive healthcare, on addressing poverty and hunger and redistributing unpaid care work, depend on what happens in families.

Let’s work together to bring equality and justice home.