Year of the Family Aims to Shore Up Society

Long a provider of care for its members, the family now seems to need more of the same kind of support itself

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

KEVIN and Nan Jeffrey of Barnstable, Mass., plan to observe the 1994 United Nations International Year of the Family (IYF) in an unusually adventurous way.

Provided they get the necessary private and corporate support, they intend to spend a full year hiking, biking, canoeing, and camping their way across more than 20 countries from Mexico to Thailand. Their 14-year-old twin sons, Colin and Tristan, and six-month-old daughter, Gwyneth, will go with them. The boys, accomplished violinists, will take their instruments.

The Jeffreys say they want to bring a message of goodwill and respect to all the families they meet, to celebrate family similarities and differences, and, through the education and adventure involved, to strengthen their own family ties.

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``Just by doing something challenging with your kids ... it bonds you together in ways it is hard to describe,'' says Kevin. He adds that he thinks the family is in ``deep trouble'' as an institution, particularly in industrialized countries where the social fabric that binds families is ``slowly getting ripped.'' Children often do not feel part of the family and parents lack time for them, he says.

The UN is inviting families around the world to observe the International Year of the Family in their own way - and at their own expense. Conferences and seminars, some pegged to the first annual observance of the International Day of the Family on May 15, are the most common choice.

The family, the most basic unit of society, faces multiple new challenges. With more parents in the work force and almost one-third of the world's families now headed by a single parent, many children must fend for themselves more often. Welfare and tax policies sometimes encourage family splits.

``Families are sometimes required to make unfair choices between family cohesion and needed services,'' says UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Rising rates of divorce, domestic violence, and urban crime add to the strain.

The UN General Assembly decided five years ago to designate 1994 as a year to raise awareness of the new family challenges and to spur the push for better policies and laws to deal with them. The UN held four regional preparatory meetings on the subject in 1993 but views its role primarily as a catalyst.

Some doubted the intent or effectiveness of the effort in the beginning. ``You have to realize it's not as attractive a subject as, let's say, narcotic drugs or women's issues,'' says Henry Sokalski, the Vienna-based UN coordinator for the International Year of the Family. Early doubters included some women's groups. They assumed the family focus might include a call for women to ``return to the kitchen,'' he says. Others, he says, were afraid that the year might stress rights more than family responsibilities.

Mr. Sokalski says he's seen a reversal of much of the early skepticism. More than 130 nations now have national IYF coordinating committees.

The UN has scrupulously avoided defining the family or singling out any form as a model. The official UN logo for the year, which evolved only after 15 trial designs, is an abstract composition of brush strokes depicting a heart sheltered by a roof. ``We're trying to encourage the stability that families give, but we're not going to get trapped into any definition of family,'' notes UN spokesman William Hass. ``It's a diversified world and unless we respect that ... we can't achieve any progress,'' Sokalski adds.

UN officials have gone out of their way to stress that respect for human rights, as guaranteed by UN conventions, is a crucial part of the family discussion. The IYF motto is ``Building the smallest democracy in the heart of society.'' In his remarks at the December launch of IYF in the General Assembly, Mr. Boutros-Ghali stressed that support for the family must not come at the expense of or instead of rights - such as a child's right to be fed and protected and the right of women to be respected within the family and to contribute their full talents to society.

Still, some skepticism about the year's focus remains.

``Some groups are definitely planning to use the year of the family to try to push a very conservative, traditional family agenda against women's rights - particularly in relation to reproductive rights and divorce rights in some countries,'' says Charlotte Bunch, director of the Center for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in New Jersey. ``There's been a very strong push from the Vatican and the Catholic Church, for instance, on the year of the family as [a time to focus on] traditional values, anti-contraception, and those kinds of issues.'' She does not think such a focus is necessarily internationally coordinated or UN-endorsed. Indeed, most UN material on the family that she has seen, she says, is very positive.

UN statistics underscore the wide diversity in families around the world. While family size generally is decreasing, average family size is still more than seven members in Algeria (the highest in Africa) more than six in Jordan, Bahrain, Kuwait, Pakistan, and Syria, and more than seven in Iraq.

In much of Africa and Southwest Asia, children under 15 account for almost half the population. And in industrial countries, the proportion of people over 65 is expected to increase to 16 percent of the total by the end of the century.

Many families are victims of poverty or wars. Some move to find better lives or just to survive. The number of refugees - now an estimated 18 million - has more than doubled in the last decade. Though many such families split temporarily, the moves also illustrate the strength of the bond that holds a family together. The decision to flee is usually made by the entire family and is a deliberate part of a long-range strategy to preserve the family, says Susan Forbes Martin, a co-founder of the Women's Commission for Refugee Women and Children.

One universal strength of the family, in the eyes of most analysts, is as a center of values.

``Where do people get their motivation for violence or peaceful activity?'' asks Nona Cannon of San Diego, who is currently writing a book on violence and the family. With her husband Carroll, Dr. Cannon helped found North Americans for the International Year of the Family, the US coordinating group for the IYF. She says the first years of a child's life, and the presence or absence of family love and nurturing, are crucial to later behavior.

``Prisons and police can deter crime, but it's where the problem originates that we must do a better job,'' Dr. Carroll Cannon says. He says the schools must do more to help people understand how to live together as marriage partners and to acquire skills in parenting.

One key aim of the IYF is to prod governments and employers to take a broader look at family needs in shaping social policy. In the past, Boutros-Ghali and other experts say, little or no effort has been made to consider the impact on families of economic development strategies.

``It would be wise to treat the family as a comprehensive subject of social policy rather than approach things on a sectoral basis,'' Mr. Sokalski says. ``Maybe it would be better to help families directly, for instance, to take care of the elderly and disabled rather than to build homes for them, because the emotional aspect of the separation of such vulnerable people from their families is great.'' Families need more resources, however, to do the job, he says.

The UN hopes the IYF will prove a useful tool in such efforts.

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