|In 1993, the United Nations
General Assembly proclaimed that May 15 of each year should be
commemorated as an International Day of Families. The
theme for this year's observance is "Changing Families:
Challenges and Opportunities."
Kofi A. Annan, Secretary-General of
the United Nations, has issued a statement concerning this
occasion in which he acknowledged that the family
has been undergoing "profound
transformations" in recent years.
The average family size has
decreased all over the world; young people are getting married
at a later age; the average age of mothers at first birth has
increased; infant mortality rates have declined, and couples are
having fewer children, Annan observed.
"Alternative forms of union
have grown more common, such as unmarried cohabitation, or
marriages of migrant workers not living in the same city or
country as their spouses, " he added. "Divorce has increased,
accompanied by remarriage, with more and more children living in
a family with a step-parent."
"Many of these transformations
call into question the structure of society as we know it," the
Secretary-General stated. "They require us to work
together to adapt, to shape public policy in a way that
addresses the needs of families, to ensure that basic services
such as education and health are provided to all
citizens-especially children-irrespective of their family
Changing social attitudes and more diverse living arrangements
are forcing governments throughout the world to be more flexible
in the way they define "family" in public programs.
Private businesses are also adapting employment policies and
consumer practices to respond to a wide variety of demographic
officials and corporate executives are facing the reality that
many young people are delaying or foregoing marriage altogether,
cohabitation rates have increased significantly, same-sex
couples are more visible and demanding equal rights, single
parenthood is on the rise, and dual-income marriages are fast
becoming the norm.
About half of
all households in the United States are now headed by unmarried
adults. In just a few years, solo singles will occupy
nearly 30 percent of the nation's housing units. About
one-third of all children born in the United States each year
are the offspring of single parents. More than 20 percent
of women in their forties do not have children. An
increasing number of unmarried adults in their twenties are
living with their parents.
of demographic changes are not unique to the United States.
Many nations in the European Union have experienced similar
family and household patterns.
Eurostat, the Statistical Office of the European Communities, of
the 4.8 million babies born in EU nations in 2004, about
one-third were born outside of marriage.
The largest proportions of births
outside marriage were found in Estonia (58% in 2003), followed
by Sweden (55%), Denmark and Latvia (45% each) and France (45%
in 2003), while the lowest were observed in Cyprus (3%), Greece
(5%) and Italy (15%).
of cohabitation by unmarried heterosexual couples, and
increasing demands by same-sex couples for equal rights have
prompted many EU nations to enact laws granting rights and
benefits to unmarried partners. This has occurred in
France, Great Britain, Spain, and Germany, as well as many
demographic and legal changes have not been limited to Europe.
Other nations, such as Canada, Australia, and New Zealand, have
experienced similar social transformations and have responded by
passing laws recognizing "de facto" marriages and common law
unions. The national government in Canada has gone so far
as to legalize same-sex marriage and to require all of its
provinces to follow suit.
demographic and social change has been more modest in Asian
countries, officials in Japan and China are coming to grips with
the fact that an increasing number of young women are staying
single much longer than ever before. Marriage no longer
carries the attraction it once had for many young Asian women
who find a higher value in establishing a career and having an
active social life with their friends.
to liberal changes toward unmarried relationships occurring in
many parts of the world, most Islamic nations continue to take a
hard line on such matters. News stories in the past few
years describe unmarried couples being arrested for holding
hands or kissing in public and unmarried women being lashed or
receiving death sentences for premarital sex.
of this sort have been common in Nigeria, Iran, Turkey, Sudan,
Malaysia, and Indonesia. It is not unusual for governments in
such nations to ignore so-called "honor killings" where
relatives murder an unmarried woman for tarnishing the family's
reputation because she had sexual relations outside of marriage.
divergent views that many nations now hold on unmarried families
and nonmarital sexual relationships, recognizing and protecting
the human rights of unmarried adults throughout the world will
be a major challenge for the United Nations in coming years.
Article 12 of
the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that "No
one shall be subjected to arbitrary interference with his
privacy, family, home or correspondence" and that "everyone has
the right to the protection of the law against such interference
It would be
appropriate for the UN Committee on Human Rights to enforce
Article 12 by investigating and condemning abusive practices and
policies in nations which trample on the privacy rights of
unmarried adults. It is difficult for many unmarried
people to commemorate an International Day of Families when
millions of us in various parts of the world experience
discrimination on the basis of our marital status or are
punished for exercising our freedom of intimate association.
Unmarried America 2006
Thomas F. Coleman, Executive Director of Unmarried America, is an
attorney with 33 years of experience in singles' rights, family
diversity, domestic partner benefits, and marital status discrimination.
Each week he adds a new commentary to Column One: Eye on Unmarried
email@example.com. Unmarried America is a nonprofit
information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and