Editor’s Note: Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director at UN Women. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.
Cameroonian Christine Banlog, 64, has been raising her three grandchildren by herself since her daughter’s death in 2011. Banlog’s day starts with the early rush to buy wholesale produce that she can sell in the local market. When the market closes at 3 p.m., Banlog doesn’t stop.
She sets up a small stand near her home to sell whatever’s left. “I use the income to pay school fees, even though it’s very difficult. Money is not enough,” she says. At the end of every long day, Banlog goes home to cook dinner.
Banlog’s family configuration is not the conventional one that we so often see in the media and movies – a husband, his wife and children. It’s not the standard “nuclear” model that many decision-makers have in mind when they are formulating policies to support family life. But look around, and you will see that our societies and cultures are made up of a spectrum of family forms.
A new report by UN Women backs this observation up with data. Drawing on global analysis, the report finds that families are diverse across all regions, with nuclear families actually in the minority. The Progress of the World’s Women report uses census data to show that only 38% of households are comprised of couples living with their children. A similar proportion – 27% – are extended families, like Banlog’s.
The question for decision-makers is therefore less about who is included in a family, and more about what we are doing to ensure that everyone is supported. Banlog, and millions of women like her, are acting as shock absorbers for family units in times of adversity. But womens’ resources are not infinitely elastic, and families aren’t always self-sufficient. They need supportive communities, markets and well targeted government policies in order to flourish.
Expanding female employment opportunities
Social protection and public services can play a critical role in buffering families against hardship and advancing prosperity and gender equality. According to our report, across the world, marriage and childbearing currently depress women’s employment rates, while they have the opposite effect on men. Policies are needed that allow more mothers to stay in employment, such as maternity and parental leave, and policies to trigger equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work within families.
Along with paid leave and efforts to redistribute care in the home, we need explicitly written legislation to create more jobs in the care sector and to promote early child development by providing accessible, affordable and quality education and care for children under five.
This is a win-win tactic for counties. Calculations for my own country, South Africa, suggest that universalizing quality childcare services for children under the age of five could create more than 2 million new jobs and, should most of these jobs go to women, an increase of up to 10 percentage points in the female employment rate.
Updating divorce and inheritance laws
Families can be contradictory spaces for women: they are places of love, nurturing and solidarity, as well as where women are most likely to experience violence and discrimination. Family laws have a critical bearing on women’s equal rights within marriage and the strength of any fallback position, yet they remain the area of law that is most likely to discriminate against women in ways that limit their ability to move on. For example, in 13% of countries, women are still denied equal rights to confer their nationality on their children.
Laws regarding divorce, custody and inheritance need reform to align with the longstanding international human rights frameworks that guarantee equality. Without the right to divorce, women can remain trapped in violent relationships. Conversely, studies have found that the liberalization of divorce laws has led to lower rates of suicide by women, less reported domestic violence and fewer instances of women being murdered by their spouses.
The right to inherit has a major impact on women’s ability to accumulate wealth, given how difficult it can be to earn enough to save, or buy land or other assets. The increased financial security for women that comes from equal rights to inherit and retain property – and to share fairly in the assets of the family after divorce – protect women from being stranded without resources.
Recognizing the diversity of partnerships
We need new family laws that recognize the reality of the present-day diversity of partnership. Increasingly this recognition includes cohabiting and same-sex partnerships, with 42 countries and territories already having legalized same-sex partnerships and/or marriage.
Globally, around one tenth of households are single parent families, and most of these are headed by women. Multiple factors contribute to this situation, including conflict and migration, which can lead to family separation. Many women make difficult – but ultimately empowered choices – to leave bad relationships and marriages because of domestic abuse, something that one in five women has experienced over the past year alone, according to our research.
Strengthening women’s access to sexual and reproductive health and rights – including reproductive health care and comprehensive sexuality education – brings multiple dividends, ranging from life-saving health care to women’s control over whether and when to have children, and how many. Access to these services is an essential foundation for women’s and girls’ ability to exercise voice and agency in their lives, whether in marriage or in intimate partnerships.
Get our free weekly newsletter
For example, Rwanda’s investments to extend community-based health insurance and trained community health care workers has brought information, condoms and contraceptives to Rwandan women in even the most remote communities. Total fertility in the country has more than halved, from 8.3 to 3.8 live births per woman over the past four decades. These policies and investments have also dramatically reduced the maternal mortality ratio from 1,300 deaths per 100,000 live births in 1990, to 290 in 2015.
The fabric of society is strengthened when all families are recognized and all their members can thrive. Feminists and their allies across the world have fought for the laws that make this possible. And we continue to fight for women’s equal rights for inheritance and divorce, for safety at home and in their intimate partnerships, for health services that truly serve their needs, and for the policy recognition and support of single mothers and LGBT families.