How the world adjusts to new family forms

A U.N. report cites a growing diversity in types of families, requiring shifts in laws and policies. Whatever their kind, families still are the bedrock of love and identity.

Joel Barker gives his newly adopted daughter, Lylah, a kiss as his biological daughter, Noel, looks on during adoption proceedings in Bloomington, Ind., in 2017.

In India, more parents now merely suggest a potential marriage match to their children rather than force an arranged one. In Tunisia, Muslim women can now freely marry a non-Muslim. And according to the J. Walter Thompson marketing firm, choosing to be single for life is a global trend, driven by affluent young people who are “confident, fulfilled, and empowered.”

These news items may show traditional ideas about family are changing faster than ever. But how fast and in what direction? In the first of its kind, a United Nations report looks at the global data and finds a rising diversity of family forms. This shift requires a “reality check” on laws and policies, states the report “Families in a Changing World.”

“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,” says Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the U.N. under-secretary-general and executive director of U.N. Women.

Just 38% of families are couples (married or unmarried) with children, the report says, as the rates of delayed marriage, divorce, and cohabitation keep rising. About a quarter of households include extended family. And 42 countries or territories have given the right to marry or partnership recognition to same-sex couples.

One big driver of the new diversity, says the report, is that “women are increasingly able to exercise agency and voice within their families.” This has “triggered some shifts in the balance of power within the home.”

Whatever their forms, families still play a unique role. They “can be places of love and affection, and pivotal for each member’s sense of identity and belonging,” the report states.

For people of faith, marriage still plays an essential part in life. Marriage is “the single most compelling metaphor for the relationship between God and us,” says Britain’s former chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, because it “involves commitment, a mutual pledge of openness and trust, a promise that neither will walk away in difficult times.” One reality that needs attention, according to the UN, is that at least 101 million women are raising children on their own.

Since the 1950s, the world has seen a strong trend toward gender equality in family laws. This adjustment to new forms of family has helped reinforce the enduring importance of the institution. Or as Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka puts it, “Families are places of love, where we can go for support and nourishment.”

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