World's Family: Fact or Fiction?

CONCERNS over the way the issues of motherhood and families are to be treated at the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing have received attention from the news media - much of it sparked by charges that the conference is ''antifamily.''

Implicit in such charges is the notion that progress for women and girls threatens the well-being of families - a bizarre one, given the extent to which families are sustained by mothers, wives, and daughters.

Such assumptions not only ignore research linking progress for women to better living conditions for families and communities; they also are based on wistful and inaccurate ideas about what a ''normal family'' is.

The stable, one-worker family of myth, with father as economic provider, mother as emotional caregiver, and children treated equally and well by both parents, is entrenched in industrialized cultures - but increasingly hard to find, according to a recent report by the Population Council, which analyzed data from various countries on families with dependent children.

This is true in poor countries as well as rich ones. Thirty-three percent of all households with children in Ghana are maintained primarily by women. Women currently head 20 percent of the households in Thailand, 29 percent of the households in Trinidad and Tobago, and up to 50 percent of households in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa.

Our study found that families in most countries are shrinking, and their economic burdens are growing larger as working parents assume more responsibility for the care and support of both younger and longer-living, older dependents. One person's earnings are no longer sufficient to sustain a family.

No international family-planning policy can succeed if it ignores these realities: Mothering is about earning as much as nurturing, and men's sense of masculinity has been too narrowly defined in terms of earning ability.

Mothers have always provided for their families, but increasingly their support is more visible and involves hard cash. Boys and fathers need to know that the father-child link is crucial to the well-being of children, regardless of the father's earning ability.

Beijing's is the latest in a series of UN conferences linking the future of the human race to better support of the earth's most productive resources, including women and children. Last year, a historic consensus was achieved at the International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo on a plan to slow population growth and promote sustainable development. The empowerment of women is a cornerstone of that agreement and a goal of the Beijing conference. The conference offers governments a chance to reexamine how families, specifically girls and women in those families, are functioning in today's world, and under what burdens.

What relationship do existing policies and prevailing attitudes have to families throughout the world? Far too little, according to our study, which found societies making insufficient investments in children or in adults who wish to be good parents. Worldwide, fathers provide only one-third as much child care as mothers, and their economic and emotional support declines abruptly if the marriage ends - with two-fifths of divorced fathers in the United States, one-half in Malaysia, and substantial proportions in many other countries making no child-support payments.

Delegates to the World Conference on Women will approve a Platform for Action that will help guide the policies of national governments and international agencies into the next century. The world's families have a great deal to gain from such policies.

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