A family in Mali. Photo by: Marco Dormino / U.N. / CC BY-NC-ND

As decision-makers and advocates come together in New York this week to review progress on the Sustainable Development Goals, under the banner of “empowering people and ensuring inclusiveness and equality,” a new UN Women report shows that families can play a crucial role in advancing gender equality.

While policymakers and civil society often focus on the economy and governments as levers of change to make progress on development, gender equality, and the SDGs, the domestic sphere is equally important. “Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020” shows that family-friendly policies, tailored to the realities of diverse families are vital, effective, and affordable.

Families can be “make or break” for women and girls when it comes to enjoying their human rights and achieving their potential. Families can be spaces of love, care, and sharing — places where we are accepted for who we are, a refuge when times are tough, and a springboard to go out into the world and achieve great things. But they are also the places where women and girls are most likely to face violence and discrimination.

Consider a few facts: In 2017, every day, 137 women were killed by a member of their own family. Although globally rates have fallen, every year 12 million girls are married in childhood, denied opportunities to delay motherhood, to enjoy their youth, and to finish their education. In spite of this, girls have continued to make significant gains in education, but in several regions, particularly Northern Africa, Western Asia, and Southern Asia, this has failed to translate into greater opportunities for paid work, with only about a quarter of women (aged 25-54) in the labor force, compared to almost all men.

Solving all of these problems requires policymakers to pay attention to what happens in families, and to implement laws and policies that can help to shape the norms, stereotypes, and practices that hold back women and girls in their family lives.

In the case of child marriage, while almost all countries now set the minimum age of marriage at 18, in two-thirds of countries, exceptions are permitted with parental or judicial consent. Three-quarters of countries have domestic violence laws in place, but services to enable women to escape family violence have been cut to the bone, and investments in prevention programs are minimal or nonexistent.

Women are still responsible for the overwhelming majority of unpaid care and domestic work, which in the absence of care services for children and older people, restricts their access to paid work opportunities.

Progress of the World’s Women shows that a comprehensive family-friendly policy agenda — spanning reform of family laws, social protection to address poverty across the life course, high-quality health and childcare services, and concrete measures to prevent and respond to violence in families — is critical to making progress on gender equality, with benefits for women, but also for families, societies, and economies. In so doing, there is the potential to make real progress on the SDGs and targets — including on gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls (SDG 5), but also on poverty (SDG 1), education (SDG 4), health (SDG 3) and sustainable growth (SDG 8), among others.

For these policies to be effective, they need to be designed based on the reality of how families live today. The report shows, for the first time with global data, that families are diverse. While just over one-third of households consist of a couple living with their children, almost the same proportion are extended families, incorporating a grandmother, an aunt, or uncle.

About one in 10 households are lone-parent families, mostly lone mothers. Because these women have to do all of the caring and all of the earning, these families are much more likely to live in poverty than couple families. Policies that are based on the idea of a male breadwinner and a female homemaker or that ignore the care requirements of different kinds of families will fail to hit the mark.

The policy agenda outlined in the report is based on elements of what many countries are already doing: it is achievable and affordable. Most countries can implement a package of family-friendly policies, including paid maternity and parental leave, income support for families with children, pensions for all, health care, and high-quality care services for children and older people for less than 5% of GDP.

Making these investments has the potential to unlock progress on the SDGs, and bring equality and justice home.

About the author

  • Laura

    Laura Turquet

    Laura Turquet is the manager and co-author of U.N. Women’s flagship report, "Progress of the World’s Women." For the past decade, she has worked at U.N. Women leading major research reports that inform the organization’s advocacy objectives and empower civil society and governments to seek and implement change. She is a co-founder of the U.N. Feminist Network and previously worked at various NGOs.