Column One:
Eye on Unmarried America

May 15,  2006  



May 15 is International Day of Families

By Thomas F. Coleman

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 situation."

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 trends. 

Elected 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.

These types of demographic changes are not unique to the United States.  Many nations in the European Union have experienced similar family and household patterns.

According to 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%).

Rising rates 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 Nordic countries.

Such 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.

Although 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.

In contrast 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.

Punishments 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.

Given the 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 or attacks."

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 America. E-mail: Unmarried America is a nonprofit information service for unmarried employees, consumers, taxpayers, and voters.