The International Day of Families promoted by the United Nations.

Worn out liturgy of the institutions or real opportunity for the families in the world?

Francesco Belletti, sociologist, director of Cisf (International Centre for Family Studies),

Head of Research of the Family International Monitor

1. Family: a central but not obvious topic

The international debate on family is still characterised by a permanent ambivalence:

  • On the one hand, the consensus on the value of family as “the basic unit of society” (point h. of the “Principles and Objectives” of the Copenhagen Declaration on Social Development, 14 March 1995), as irreplaceable element of protection for the well-being of the person and for the social cohesion of the communities and of the peoples. The centrality of family in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic emergency confirms it once more, as testified as well in the Background Note for the 2020 International Day of Families, that this year is dedicated to “Families in development: Copenhagen & Beijing+25”, where it is underlined that “The 2020 COVID-19 pandemic brings into sharp focus the importance of investing in social policies protecting the most vulnerable individuals and families. It is the families who bear the brunt of the crisis, sheltering their members from harm, caring for out of school children and at the same time continuing their work responsibilities. Families become the hub of intergenerational interactions that support us in the crisis”;

  • on the other hand, the concept of family itself has been questioned by many in various occasions, thus provoking contrasts and clashes at all levels. The legislative intervention in many nations and in the international bodies has influenced, frequently in a decisive way, the definition of family itself, thus modifying the freedom of self-realisation of the families themselves. It is also possible to talk about the risk of a “reverted subsidiarity”, in which the law imposed a definition of family and of family relations, instead of just establishing the conditions so that families can develop their own autonomous responsibility.

Within this ambivalent scenario (which deserves an in-depth analysis that cannot be carried out in this text), certainly, an important role was played by the promotion of the International Day of Families (IDF), launched by the United Nations for the 15th of May of every year (Resolution of the General Assembly A/RES/47/237) with the intention “to promote awareness of issues relating to families and to increase knowledge of the social, economic and demographic processes affecting families”, and as a consequence of the proclamation of 1994 as International Year of the Family (and also in here we perceive a non-marginal difference, in terms of ambivalence, between the “international Year of Family, “singular”, and the International Day of Families, “plural”).

In any case, it still remains objectively important, in those years, the attention dedicated by the United Nations to family; the 1994 launch was decided in 1989 (resolution 44/82 of 9 December 1989), as the witness of a long-term perspective, that wanted to recognise the family as the decisive social infrastructure for the protection of persons and for the overall development of a more equal, supportive and pacific global society. Already in 1983 and in 1985, indeed, the UN Council (Resolution 1985/29 of 29 May 1985) invited the General Assembly to consider the possibility of including in its own agenda the topic of “family in the development process”, to start a path to increase the awareness of the Governments, intergovernmental bodies, NGO networks and of the public opinion so that they could arrange the adequate family policies.

Also, the approach proposed both by the topic and by the motto of the 1994 year was commendable: the general topic was “Family: resources and responsibilities in a changing world”: the motto was “Building the Smallest Democracy at the Heart of Society”. Both sentences placed the family in the column of the resources, with an active and generative role, and not in the column of weaknesses (needs, lacks, requests of support to the country).

It must also be pointed out the positive attitude of the Church, expressed by John Paul II on Christmas day of 1993: «The church welcomes happily this initiative and she joins it with all the love it has for each human family. In fact, I would like to announce, during this International meeting of families, a special call for the whole Christian world [it was going to be the first of the “Worlds Meetings of Families”; in Rome, in October 1994. Such meetings continued in various cities of the world, until the 10th meeting, postponed from 2021 to 2022 due to the pandemic emergency, that will be held in Rome again – Editor's note] From this year's Feast of the Holy Family, until the same Feast of 1994, we will celebrate inside the catholic church as well the International Year of the Family.

The Pontifical Council for the Family, in relation with the other competent bodies, will follow the initiatives of the United Nations with a spirit of dialogue and collaboration, by preparing and coordinating the celebrations and events that will be promoted within the catholic church.

The International Year of the Family will surely offer a providential chance to deepen the values that constitute this natural institution. I am sure that a greater knowledge and promotion of such values will help building a brotherlier and more supportive world, especially of those values that are daily involved in the pastoral care of the family, and welcoming this unique moment of grace for a work that can go even deeper».

It is also very interesting the graphic representation adopted by the United Nations (and still in use) for each action regarding family: inside a well-defined green circle (which represents the world), it was represented “a heart covered and protected by a roof, linked to a smaller heart, which represents the life and love in a home where everyone finds warmth, care, safety, unity, tolerance and acceptance [...] The drawing is open, indicating that the continuity is connected to a certain level of uncertainty. The brush stroke that completes the open part of the roof symbolises the complexity of family”.

2. A virtuous approach: subsidiarity

The promotion strategy of the 1994 International Year of the Family (and of the successive International Days) was characterised by at least two interesting elements (which are shared by the most innovative and effective actions promoted by the UN):

  • First of all, the United Nations acted as facilitator and promoter of the awareness and of the responsibilities of the individual nations, instead of seeing themselves as the subject that planned events, initiatives and projects. In this way, the leading role and the responsibility of the innovation and of the planning remained in the hands of the national governments and/or of the regional networks (networks between countries in Europe, Africa, in the area of the Arab countries, etc.). A lot of countries, in turn, promoted a transfer of the actions from the national level to the local bodies that are closer to the territory (the individual states, in the case of the United States, the Regions and Municipalities in Italy, etc.). In other words, a cascade process was triggered, in which the Day of the Family became every year the occasion for and the catalyst of social innovation and of new decisions of social and family policy, at a national and local level. In the past 25 years, looking at the reports that are regularly submitted to the General Assembly to give an account of the initiatives carried out, it is possible to notice that not all the nations have used this opportunity, and that, in general, the developing countries were the ones who took the opportunity of the International Day of Families to start processes of social innovation and to place the family dimension in the centre again.

  • Secondly, special attention was given to the role and the activities of family associationism and of civil society (the NGOs of the sector), which are also considered as the actual generators of novelties, social action, direct help to the families, and especially of support for a renewed main role of families themselves. In fact, the networks of the family NGOs connected to the activity of the UN, apart from acting in New York, still have an important reference in the headquarters of Vienna (, and keep carrying out a precious work of connection and promotion at an international level.

In both cases, we can talk about a correct “subsidiarity”, that placed again in the centre the bodies and subjects that are closer to the daily life of families.

3. The agenda of the recurrent themes

The agenda of the priorities of action to support the families in the world, of course, was very complex and structured, and it imposed - and still imposes- a double approach:

  • On the one hand, it is necessary to preserve a unified and multidimensional perspective of the life of the family as a whole (personal relations, education, income, housing, work, freedom...);

  • On the other hand, some problems must be faced and put under observation with accurate and specific tools, in a sectoral way (to offer jobs to the new generations, to protect maternity, to protect the weak members in the family...).

In this sense, the analytic planning of the International Days of the Families have been accompanied, ever since the beginning, by three macro-priorities, that had already been launched by the already mentioned Final Copenhagen Declaration of 1995 on social development, that are recalled today in different ways by the 17 Sustainable Development Goals 2030.

  • Eradication of poverty, by fighting against family poverty and its social exclusion;

  • Full occupation and decent work, granting the balance between work and family life;

  • Social integration, by promoting solidarity between the generations inside the families and communities.

In this way, on the 15th of May of every year, through the International Day of Families, the United Nations have urged the international bodies, the national governments and the local administrations, as well as the NGOs and their networks and associations at every level, to face themselves with specific topics, to include them more regularly and with more attention in their own operational agenda (see table).

By scrolling the list of the 25 topics proposed from 1996 to 2020, a strong heterogeneity of the problems, that surely appears to be virtuous, emerges:

  • Attention has been requested for the internal dynamics of the family (father and mothers in 2008 and in 2009, the relation men/women and children's rights, 2015);

  • It was not absent the promotion of the family as a resource for society and as autonomous and socially responsible subject (in 2000, in 2017 and in 2018), generator of common good (see also the connection with the topic of global development, in 2014 and in 2016, or with climate change, in 2019);

  • Furthermore, specific conditions of fragility and vulnerability in relation to which it is necessary to act with a family and non-individualistic perspective (like in the case of persons with disabilities in 2007 or of migrants in 2010) have been identified.

1996 Families: First Victims of Poverty and Homelessness

1997 Building Families Based on Partnership

1998 Families: Educators and Providers of Human Rights

1999 Families for all ages

2000 Families: Agents and Beneficiaries of Development

2001 Families and Volunteers: Building Social Cohesion

2002 Families and Ageing: Opportunities and Challenge

2003 Preparations for the observance of the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family in 2004

2004 The Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family: A Framework for Action

2005 “HIV/AIDS and Family Well-being

2006 Changing Families: Challenges and Opportunities

2007 Families and Persons with Disabilities

2008 Fathers and Families: Responsibilities and Challenges

2009 Mothers and Families: Challenges in a Changing World

2010 The impact of migration on families around the world

2011 Confronting family poverty and social exclusion

2012 Ensuring work family balance

2013 Advancing social integration and inter-generational solidarity

2014 Families Matter for the Achievement of Development Goals; International Year of the Family + 20

2015 Men in charge? Gender equality and children’s rights in contemporary families

2016 Families, healthy lives and sustainable future

2017 Families, education and well-being

2018 Families and inclusive societies

2019 Families and Climate Action: Focus on SDG13

2020 Families in development: Copenhagen & Beijing+25

Furthermore, the list shows that the topic of poverty, that concerns more directly the activities of the present Family International Monitor, was proposed precisely in 1996, the first year in which the International Day of 15 May was dedicated to a specific topic, confirming that the interweaving of family and poverty keeps being decisive when reflecting at a global level on the role of family as promoter of development and well-being for the individuals and society. (Families: First Victims of Poverty and Homelessness).

After all, 1996 had been proclaimed as the International Year for the eradication of poverty (a goal that is still far from being achieved) and, in analogy with family, for this topic as well, in 1992, an International Day for the eradication of poverty had already been identified, established for 17 October of every year.

In the message of 15 May 1996, the Secretary-General of the United Nations reminded that “The family has been and continues to be a bulwark against poverty. But poverty can be corrosive, affecting family solidarity and family relations. In extreme situations, poverty contributes to family dysfunction or disintegration. Other contemporary forces also place strains on families. These include changes in population structure, widespread migration of people, especially youth in search of work and economic opportunities, and mass displacement of population because of war or civil strife. All of these impair an often already precarious access to adequate shelter and basic amenities.

Furthermore, the importance of the intertwining between the two topics, families and poverty, is confirmed by the fact that also in 2011 the International Day was dedicated to the relation between family, poverty and social exclusion (Confronting Family Poverty and Social Exclusion), underlying that “Far too many families endure chronic, punishing hardship. Lacking jobs and the means to make ends meet, adults are unable to provide adequate nutrition for children, leaving them with lifelong physical and cognitive scars. Other family members can suffer neglect and deprivation. Poverty continues to claim the lives of hundreds of thousands of women each year in childbirth” (Message of the Secretary-General,15 May 2011).

Therefore, for the United Nations as well, the link between family and poverty keeps being a fundamental element of these difficult and stormy times, in which, at a global level, the production of increasing levels of wealth in different parts of the world has been accompanied as well by an increasing and pervasive inequality, with increasingly unbearable distances between few who have more and more, and many who have less and less. Still, it is true that the most extreme marginality seems to be progressively decreasing; but one gets out of extreme poverty to reach at most situations of high vulnerability, where even the slightest “shock”, such as a disease in the family, an unforeseen expenditure, a local employment crisis, an adverse climatic event can bring him back again to marginality, as it will probably happen during the next months, having to deal with the medium and long term consequences of the pandemic that we are still undergoing. And meanwhile, at the other extreme, increasingly less persons hold an increasingly higher share of the global wealth.

For these reasons as well, the Family International Monitor wants to continue with the analysis started in this three-year period (2019-2021), specifically dedicated to the intertwining of family and poverty, to propose an original interpretation of the dynamics that are triggered between the families that “resist” and structural or relational factors of impoverishment, with the aim of offering to the international debate new starting points to promote more family-friendly societies, in which each family can feel as the protagonist of its own life, able to generate good for its own members and community and never abandoned by society.