Families in focus of UN Women’s new report

UN Women launches the latest edition of its flagship report Progress of the World’s Women 2019 focusing on families. This is welcomed as the notions of the family and families are increasingly politicised concepts especially in the global policy arena, and are crucial to understand and unpack if we are to reach gender equality.


The report Progress of the World’s Women 2019: Families in a Changing World focuses on how transformations in family life influence gender equality and women’s empowerment. The report looks at families as spaces for cooperation and love but also of inequality and conflict, and explores what role family policies can play for increased gender equality.  It underlines that whilst governments are the principal duty bearers that should be held accountable, other actors such as women’s rights organisations, labour unions, faith organisations and the private sector have important roles to play.

Challenging family norms
The report is indeed timely given the current discussions on the global arena where the notions of “family values” and “traditional family” are frequently and strategically used to push back advancement of women’s rights and inclusive policies. The term family is often interpreted as the nuclear family when discussed both in religious contexts and at the UN level. For instance, during this year’s Commission on the Status of Women, there were multiple efforts to instate the word “the family” as an exclusive concept, ignoring the fact that there is no such thing as the “standard family”. The UN Women report shows that there is “significant diversity in family structures and relationships that exists across regions, within countries, and over time”.

Religion is often used in arguments opposing a more inclusive understanding of family and a number of religious actors have put substantial efforts into arguing that the only valid understanding of family is the nuclear family. However, as a Christian actor, it is important for us to underline that there are various forms of families described in the Bible and the Bible does not dictate a certain form of a family. Instead, it allows for different forms of families, with relationship and community at the centre.

Family law in focus 
In the report, UN Women emphasizes the importance of getting family laws based on diversity, equality and non-discrimination into place. Act Church of Sweden has in recent years focused on family law and family norms within our global advocacy work for gender justice, as we have seen significant the impact family law has on women’s rights. It regulates matters such as women’s juridical status before, during or after marriage, legal age of marriage, domestic violence, child custody, inheritance as well as land and property ownership.

Family law is an area of legislation that in many countries is regulated by parallel religious legalisation and handled by religious courts, exempted from non-discrimination provisions in national constitutions. This gives for instance religious leaders and institutions in India, Palestine and Lebanon direct power over issues such as the rights and responsibilities of husband and wife in marriage, if a victim of domestic violence can file for divorce, and if men and women have equal rights to own and inherit property.

The complex nature of pluralistic legal systems makes it more difficult to hold governments accountable for discriminatory legislation, as the discrimination remains hidden, ignored or justified with reference to religion. Thus, discriminatory family laws can remain unscrutinised or unchallenged. This must change.

Access to sexual reproductive health and rights (SRHR) and social protection
The report brings up the need for access to public services including reproductive health care. Universal access to SRHR and social protection is one of Act Church of Sweden’s policy priorities and we would like to see that SRH is clearly integrated as part of universal health coverage (UHC). Although programs such as child grants, pensions, universal health care that includes SRH services and other social cash grants are expanding in many countries, a majority of the world’s population do not have their right to social protection realized, particularly not when it comes to comprehensive sexual and reproductive health services.

Act Church of Sweden urge the Swedish government and the international community to:

  • Hold states accountable for commitments to human rights relating to gender equality and non-discrimination. This includes for instance bringing up and referring to family law in bilateral dialogue with other states. It should also be brought up in the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) of countries that repeatedly refuse to reform discriminatory family legisation. Discriminatory legislation must not pass unnoticed.
  • Make strategic alliances with religious actors and challenge the validity of religious arguments against gender equality put forward at the global arena.
  • Underline the urgency to reform family laws, including religious family law/personal status law, that discriminate against women when speaking about gender equality at different areas.
  • Keep insisting on inclusive language and wording that emphasises that multiple legal systems must comply with international human rights obligations in final documents, resolutions and policies of the UN.
  • Support initiatives seeking to address discriminatory legislation, including secular and religious family law.

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