By UN WOMEN – As the world around us changes, families, and the role of women and girls within them, are also changing.

There is no ‘standard’ form of family today. While the traditional perception of family may still imagine a male head of household and breadwinner, the reality of sweeping demographic, socio-economic and political changes have meant that there are many more female-headed households, families with single parents, working mothers, and families with same sex parents. Human migration, triggered by climate change, natural disasters or conflicts, has scattered families across and within borders, and changed roles and responsibilities. In today’s changing world, laws and policies must respond to the reality of how families live.

Families can be ‘make or break’ for women and girls when it comes to achieving their rights. They can be places of love, care and fulfillment, but too often, they are also spaces where women’s and girls’ rights are violated, their voices stifled, and where gender inequality prevails.

This photo essay provides a snapshot from UN Women’ latest flagship report, Progress of the World’s Women 2019-2020: Families in a Changing World, and UN Women programmes around the world.

A quiet revolution for women farmers in Guatemala and Brazil

Women from Aldea Campur, in Alta Verapaz, make, market and package their own shampoo, earning extra income for themselves and for their families.
Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

The women of Puente Viejo, a small indigenous community in the Polochic valley of Guatemala, are happy. For once, they have plenty of crops to feed themselves and their families, and they have saved more money than ever before from their organic shampoo sales.

They are part of a joint UN programme that has provided women farmers with improved quality of seeds and fertilizers, as well as training on agricultural techniques to mitigate the risks of a changing climate. The result— women have learned to make and market organic shampoo using the ingredients readily available in their farms and garden, such as aloe, avocado and honey. The programme has also taught them basic financial and savings skills and how to form loans groups.

 “Our husbands now understand that we can also be managers of our own money. With our money, we can help our household economy,” says Carlotta.

“At home, women used to do all the domestic work… But now we have divided the chores at home. Men and women work equally now,” adds 55-year-old Candelaria Pec.

The Dantas family: Leni, 42, Cesar, 34, Eliana, 44, Janette, 33, Mayla, 25, and Maria Nilda, 67.. Photo: UN Women/Lianne Milton

In Brazil, a simple idea is driving a quiet revolution among women farmers working in family farms: they have learned to use a four-column logbook to record how much of their production is sold, given away, exchanged or consumed. It has changed the way women farmers and their partners value their own production and is helping them benefit from government policies aimed at family farmers.

“Learning to look at our production was very helpful for us,” says Janete Dantas. She records the milk, eggs, chickens, fruit and vegetables produced on the smallholding she and her mother run near Itaóca, in São Paulo state, and how much it adds to their family’s income. “When we do the calculations at the end of the month, we see how big our contribution is.”

The initiative has helped women see themselves differently and forced men to value them more too. Guaranteeing women’s equal access to an adequate, independent income is the underpinning of healthy families and economies.

Bread maker and Breadwinner

Christine Banlog shows a payment slip for one of granddaughter’s school fees. Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown

Globally, some 84.3 per cent of lone-parent households are led by women who are juggling paid work and care work at home. In some 40 countries, lone-mother households are on average twice as likely to live in poverty, compared to dual-parent households.

Meet Christine Banlog from Cameroon. She is 64, widowed and raising her three grandchildren by herself. In 2011, Christine’s daughter died from complications during childbirth.

Christine’s day starts early as she rushes to different wholesale markets to pick up produce that she can sell in the local market.

The market closes at 3 p.m., but that’s too early for Christine to stop working; she has four mouths to feed and school fees to pay for her granddaughters. After the market closes, she sets up a small stand near her home to sell the produce that’s left.

“I use the income to pay school fees even though it’s very difficult; money is not enough,” she says.

At the end of the long day, Christine goes home to cook dinner.

When asked about what support she needs, she mentions insurance and access to credit. Since she doesn’t have insurance, if she cannot make it to the market one day, she incurs losses. With access to some credit, she could invest and grow her business.

Families come in all shapes and forms

By the flag of LGBT pride, Sao Mimol kisses her partner during an LGBT PRIDE event organized by Cam ASEAN, a Cambodian human rights group.
Photo: UN Women/Mariken Harbitz

Families look, feel and live differently today. A comprehensive family-friendly policy agenda and family laws that recognize diversity and promote equality and non-discrimination, give women voice and choice within and outside families.

For most of her 48 years, Sao Mimol, from Takeo Province, Cambodia, has endured taunts, from her family at home and from strangers on the street.

She was 20 years old when she first realized that she was attracted to other women.

“When I first came out, my siblings did not allow me to love women,” she recalled. “Since then, my family has always used bad words to describe me and my love life.”

At 28, Mimol fell in love with a transgender person. The couple have a home together and sell ice cream from a mobile stall.

“When I drive around in the village and sell ice cream, I still get bullied by my neighbours and even by my customers,” she said. “They don’t understand that I should be allowed to love whomever I want.”

But Mimol has never doubted her choice to stay true to her own feelings and beliefs.

“I [am] so glad that I looked beyond my family and started a life with the person I love,” she says.

Reforming laws to protect women

In Lebanon, activists hung tattered wedding dresses outside public buildings to draw attention to laws forcing women to marry their rapists.
Photo: ABAAD by Patrick Baz/AFP

When families become places of violence and abuse, it fractures women, their families and their communities. Today three billion women and girls live in countries where rape within marriage is not explicitly criminalized.

Reforming discriminatory laws, passing and implementing laws that do not allow impunity for violence against women and girls, and support services for survivors, make families and nations stronger.

The summer of 2017 was an extraordinary time for women’s rights groups across Northern Africa and Western Asia. After years of relentless campaigning, they finally saw laws that had for decades forced women to marry their rapists falling one by one.

In the space of a month, the Governments of Tunisia, then Jordan and finally Lebanon repealed or reformed clauses in their penal codes that enabled perpetrators to evade prosecution if they married the woman they had attacked and allowed families to force women into marriage with their rapists to prevent the social stigma of pre-marital sex.

Let girls be girls, not brides

Malti Tudu speaking to village women about women rights in Kishanganj Tehsil of Kishanganj district in Bihar, India.
Photo: UN Women/Biju Boro

When families are places of equality and justice, economies and societies thrive, and we can unlock the full potential of the Sustainable Development Goals. When girls are free to complete their education and can avoid early marriage and childbearing, they enjoy better health, better careers, and ultimately contribute towards better future for their entire families and societies.

Malti Tudu is a wedding crasher, her only goal is to stop the wedding from ever getting started, when the bride-to-be is a child. She lives and works in the state of Bihar, India.

Globally, an estimated 650 million women and girls alive today were married before age 18. In Malti’s community, 74.1 per cent of women and girls are married before age 18.

“If all people start boycotting such weddings, it would definitely help eliminate child marriage,” says Malti. “People are needed during a marriage ceremony – a priest to perform the religious rites, musical band to play the music, cook to prepare the food for the guests, and guests to give their blessings to the newlyweds.”

Malti, barely 20 years old, belongs to the Women’s Peer Group. To prevent child marriage, the group asks parents to pledge that they wouldn’t marry their underage daughters – or attend such weddings. After the pledging ceremony, they lead rallies in their villages to spread awareness about the negative impacts of child marriage.

Affordable care helps families thrive

Childcare services managed by market workers in Makola Market, one of Africa’s largest outdoor trading centres in Accra, Ghana have many dividends.
Women market vendors have improved their income and children are happier, healthier and receiving education. Photo: UN Women/Ruth McDowall

Families are places where children and older people are cared for. Without this work to raise the next generation and take care of those in need, economies and societies would grind to a halt.

Today’s diverse families urgently need investment in gender-responsive social protection systems, including paid maternity and parental leave, adequate pensions and high-quality care services for children, older and disabled persons. Often, those who are the poorest are missing access to such services and benefits.

The women market vendors of Ghana’s Makola Market, one of Africa’s largest urban outdoor trading centres, had no other option but to carry their children on their backs to the market just to earn a livelihood. The market was not clean or safe for children and they missed out on education because their parents had to work. Now, a childcare centre within the market, designed for and managed by the workers themselves has changed everything. Every morning, 140 children are dropped off at the Makola Market Childcare Centre before their parents start their working day. The children are in a safe environment, getting education, and working mothers can focus on their business.

Uruguay’s 2015 Care Act shows how laws and policies can change the concept of “care”. Under the law, Uruguay’s Care Act has changed the concept of “care”. Under the 2015 law, all children, persons with disabilities and elderly persons, have the right to get care. The State not only provides care services, but also guarantees their quality by providing training and regulations.

The result has been transformative for Soledad Rotella. Soledad has a 21-year-old son and two daughters aged 20 and 18 years. And then there is Kiara—she is only two years old.

“I could not afford to put my older children in daycare because at that time you had to pay for it, so I had to leave them alone,” Soledad recalls. “Sometimes, to bring food to the table, that’s what I had to do.”

Now, since quality and free day care is available for Kiara through the Child and Family Care Centre, Soledad can get a full-time job without risking the well-being of her daughter.

Families on the move

Sammi Gunawan, a 38 year old Indonesian domestic worker in Singapore, eats her last meal of the day before evening prayers. Photo: UN Women/Staton Winter

Families around the world are on the move, fleeing disasters and conflicts, searching for better incomes and livelihoods, joining partners across oceans as they pursue better prospects.

Migration can open opportunities for women, but it also poses specific risks for women. For instance, migration policies and regulations often force migrants to live apart from their families, or women’s migration status may be tied to a resident or citizen spouse, placing them at risk of abuse and weakening their bargaining power within their families.

Sammi Gunawan, a 38 year old Indonesian domestic worker from Central Java working in Singapore, is a mother of two sons (aged 9 and 12). She is sad to be so far from home, but this work opportunity gives her family financial leverage she says they would never get in Indonesia.

The remittances sent by women migrant workers like Sammi improve the livelihood and health of their families and strengthen economies. In 2015, international migrants sent 432.6 billion USD in remittances to developing countries – nearly three times the amount of Official Development Assistance, which totaled at 131.6 billion USD.

Menal Suleyman with her son. Photo: UN Women/Sinem Aydin Lopez

Menal Suleyman is a refugee from Syria, living in Turkey. At the age of 30, she’s a mother of three and a widow. Menal left Syria with her three children in November 2016, and arrived in Izmir, a city on Turkey’s western coast, hoping to find a boat that would take them to Greece. From there, she wanted to travel to her brother in France.

She tried to reach the Greek Islands by boat twice, but both times the boat, overloaded with refugees, almost sank. Worried about her children’s safety, Menal gave up her dreams of reaching Greece, and decided to stay in Turkey.

The health, safety and education for her children were her priorities, but she was starting from scratch. She got the help she needed at the SADA Women-only Centre, where she learned new skills and took Turkish language courses. 

Today she is fully trained to work as a receptionist in medical facilities. “I didn’t know how to use a computer before… Now when I go to class, my youngest boy, Yusuf, attends SADA’s childcare,” she says.

Services like these can make the difference of life and death to families like Menal’s. Families on the move need gender-responsive migration policies.


This story previously appeared on UN Women and is republished with express permission in partnership with Women You Should Know. UN Women is the UN organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women. A global champion for women and girls, UN Women was established to accelerate progress on meeting their needs worldwide. For more information, visit www.unwomen.org. Follow on Facebook and Twitter.