Is the UN taking a position in today’s ‘culture wars’?

Against conservative myths about the ‘natural family’, a new UN Women report shows how families are becoming more diverse around the world.

Anne Marie Goetz Jenaina Irani
25 June 2019, 5.21pm
Delegates at the 2019 Commission on the Status of Women in New York, in March.
Photo: Flickr/UN Women. Some rights reserved. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Right-wing populists internationally have aligned with conservative religious interests in defence of the so-called ‘natural family’, built on the nucleus of a married heterosexual couple required to play binary gender roles. This family model, according to a major UN report published 25 June, is neither universal nor a norm. Families are becoming more diverse – primarily because of women’s increasing empowerment and choice.

Couples with children under 18 years old comprise only 33% of households worldwide. Almost as common, in developing countries, are extended families with multiple generations living together. There is also a growing number of what the report calls ‘emerging’ families, including same-sex partners, sibling-based households, and ‘blended families’ with married or cohabiting partners with children from previous unions.

Conservatives and human rights advocates will be alternatively alarmed and energised by the data and research in ‘Families in a Changing World’ – the 2019-2020 report in UN Women’s flagship ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ series. That such a rigorous, research-based report on this topic was produced at all, and at this particular moment, is significant.

It suggests that the UN – notoriously averse to challenging preferences of powerful states – is taking a position in the ‘culture war’ that has arrived on its doorstep. Ultra-conservative coalitions promoting ‘traditional families’ are seeking to erode protections on sexual and reproductive rights in UN forums such as the annual meetings of the Commission on the Status of Women and the Commission on Population and Development.

Get our free Daily Email

Get one whole story, direct to your inbox every weekday.

These movements have also organised advocacy events at the UN – including an ‘It Takes A Family’ celebration on 15 May to mark the 25th International Day of Families (co-sponsored by the UN Group of the Friends of the Family, a coalition of states promoting conservative policies on these issues, and the right-wing civil society UN Family Rights Caucus.

That event was notable not so much because ‘usual suspects’ (the Holy See, Egypt, Qatar, Belarus, Russia, Bangladesh) defended the patriarchal family, but because the US did. Even during the conservative Reagan and Bush administrations, US delegates avoided sharing a platform with states that have such overtly authoritarian and religious agendas.

‘Culture wars’ at the UN

Valerie Huber, senior policy advisor at the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) – responsible for applying Trump’s ‘global gag rule’ to US ‘Title X’ funding for domestic providers of reproductive health services – was a featured speaker at that event. She raised a now familiar alarm: what she sees as the bedrock of society – the ‘traditional family’ (a married man and woman and their biological offspring) – is under attack.

Valerie Huber speaking at the ‘It takes a family’ event at the UN in New York, May 2019.
Photo: Jenaina Irani.

Speakers described this (and only this) kind of family unit as supportive of patriotism, teamwork, love, acceptance, social cohesion, and better economic outcomes – without noting that it requires women’s acquiescence to subordination and dependency to function. Any non-binary interpretation of gender, deviation from heterosexuality, or assertion of women’s autonomy, is profoundly disruptive to this project.

“The Father created man and woman as the foundation of the family – this cannot change”, said the conservative Catholic activist Austin Ruse, the leader of the C-Fam lobby group in New York. Appealing to “faith”, “common sense” and “social science” he claimed:

“It is here unanimous that children do best in life when they are conceived and reared in the home of their biological and married mother and father. Better still, if this family worships God. The social science is abundant, it is overwhelming, even among liberal social scientists, that the gold standard of children is growing up in such a household. Anything less, anything different, exposes the child to profound dangers and pathologies of our day”.

UN Women’s report challenges such claims, pointing out that quality parenting can come from all kinds and combinations of parents and relatives – and deploying abundant social science of its own to show how problematic marriage (to men) can be for women, threatening their financial and physical security, and reinforcing traditional gender roles.

Austin Ruse (right) with Spanish ultra-conservative activist Ignacio Arsuaga (left), in Madrid, 2011.
Photo: Flickr/ HazteOir. Some rights reserved. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Women’s labour force participation tends to drop at marriage as does their access to and control of income. Their unpaid care responsibilities increase exponentially, as do their risks of experiencing domestic violence. Divorce is, on average, significantly more damaging financially for women than for men. Elder care is an increasing burden.

Meanwhile, women tend to be left on their own without care as they age (twice as many women as men live alone after the age of 80, the report finds), and are more likely to lack adequate income support in old age thanks to maternity-related interruptions in capacities to earn and save.

Where women do sustain high levels of employment through marriage and motherhood, they continue to bear the primary burden for care work.

Those who can afford it may contract-in domestic work (often from migrant women who have left their own children to other care providers). Others may feel pressure to ‘neutralise’ their ‘deviance’ from traditional roles by intensifying their own domestic work contributions.

Little wonder, then, that in some contexts women are defecting altogether from marriage and motherhood, resulting in plummeting fertility rates.

“Families are becoming more diverse – primarily because of women’s increasing empowerment and choice”

UN Women’s report shows that there have been many positive changes over the years. Women’s average age at marriage has gone up all over the world, and with it, their agency in entering relationships. De-linking sex from reproduction has had a momentous impact on these dynamics, increasing women’s control over their sexuality and fertility.

Changes in family law have given women stronger rights related to marital rape, inheritance, and passing their nationality onto children (though dozens of countries lag behind on these issues). The de-criminalisation of same-sex relationships has triggered a new era of family formation.

Echoing the social protection theme (including parental leave, pensions, and childcare subsidies) of the 2019 Commission on the Status of Women discussions, the report argues that these systems can mitigate against penalties that women face for mothering and caring – and could even encourage men to take these up these responsibilities.

Fertility rates have increased in some contexts where social protection systems alleviate these burdens on women. Quality long-term care reduces the cost of unnecessary hospitalisation of older people, and early childhood services improve child development and school performance.

The report calculates that 41 out of 155 studied countries could implement comprehensive social protection for less than 3% of their gross domestic product, and half could do it for less than 5%. This is a significant amount of money – but a far more productive investment than the minimum 2% the Trump administration encourages countries to spend on their militaries.

Human rights and ‘family values’

A fact the report under-emphasises is that women’s subordination in the family is, at least in the short-term, efficient (for national economies).

Women’s unpaid care work in families represents a massive subsidy, ensuring the production of the labour force and its recovery from daily exertions. This point is not lost on conservative advocates. States implementing austerity policies, for instance, rely on families to tide over gaps in employment, or access to health care, childcare or elder care.

Commission on the Status of Women session on social protection, public services and infrastructure for women in New York, March 2019.
Photo: Flickr/UN Women. Some rights reserved. CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

Right-wing governments – particularly in contexts with falling fertility – rely on ‘traditional’ gender roles as resources for a nativist agenda to restock their populations. Viktor Orban in Hungary, for example, extended ‘maternity’ leave to include grandmothers, amongst other incentives that he hopes will increase birth rates of Hungarian babies.

Such policies are unlikely to reverse women’s retreat from childbearing, marriage, and care work. The UN report points out that most states are dangerously behind in addressing child and long-term care crises because of gender biases and a reliance on the continued availability of family care.

Both the conservatives from May’s ‘It Takes A Family’ event, and the writers of UN Women’s report, invoke the Universal Declaration of Human Rights to defend families. It says “men and women… have the right to marry and to found a family”, calling this “the natural and fundamental group unit of society and entitled to protection by society and the state”.

Speakers at the conservative event quoted this declaration to argue there is only one legitimate version of family.

In contrast, the UN report notes that a lot has changed in international law since 1948, when the treaty was adopted. Respect for equality and non-discrimination, freedom from violence, and the best interests of the child mean societies must acknowledge problems with this rigid family model. The implication: there is no reason for governments not to extend parental rights to same-sex couples.

This report is likely to trigger conservative campaigners. Increasing women’s agency and empowerment in education, property and reproductive rights give them less reason to accept unfair conditions of conventional patriarchal families. And if ‘family values’ movements continue to cloak the subordination of women behind a myth of female altruism, women are just not going to buy it.

We’ve got a newsletter for everyone

Whatever you’re interested in, there’s a free openDemocracy newsletter for you.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData