The Principle of 'Shared Responsibility' in Family Policies

11 Jul 2016

Work-family balance is important not only to individuals, but also to society. The World Family Map 2015 focused on the issue at a personal level. In this paper, IFFD director Ignacio Socias lays out policy recommendations to the United Nations

STI Experts

Work-Family Balance, from Rights to Duties

Although the 2030 agenda is people-centered and promises to improve the livelihood of all individuals, it does not highlight the importance of empowering the family unit to achieve the sustainable development goals.

Only target 5.4 states that one important goal of the new directives is the recognition and "value [of] unpaid care and domestic work through the provision of public services, infrastructure and social protection policies and the promotion of shared responsibility within the household and the family as nationally appropriate."

At the United Nations Sustainable Development Summit on 25 September 2015, more than 150 world leaders adopted the new 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, including the Sustainable Development Goals. The United Nations Development Programme will support governments around the world in tackling the new agenda and taking it forward over the next 15 years.

This Agenda calls for effective — and therefore evidence-based— policy decisions. Previous decades have proved how inefficient laws, policies and programs are when they are guided by ideologies.

There is, of course, a great difference in the concept of the role of the State around the world. Different countries will require different practical solutions, but regarding family issues, in my opinion, the best solution is not to replace families’ social functions, either via the State or other institutions, but to try to support and empower families to carry out these functions in their own right. 

What does it mean to found a family?

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights should be the starting point for any consideration of family-related issues if we want to build consensus on any progress we can make.

The original French of it says: "1. A partir de l’age nubile, l’homme et la femme, sans aucune restriction quant à la race, la nationalité ou la religion, ont le droit de se marier et de fonder une famille. Ils ont des droits égaux au regard du mariage, durant le mariage, et lors de sa dissolution. 2. Le mariage ne peut être conclu qu’avec le libre et plein consentement des futurs époux. 3. La famille est l’élément naturel et fondamental de la société et a droit à la protection de la société et de l’Etat."

It is interesting to note that the word "free" ("libre") was only added at the end of the negotiation process, and that the phrase that calls for the family’s protection "by society and the State" ("protection de la société et de l’Etat") is the only place in the Declaration where the power of the state is invoked as a protective device.

This protection is vital for the ‘genetics’ of the family. The choice of founding a family and having children is private, but the consequences are public: society needs people in order to keep going. Therefore, the time, effort and money that families invest in their children should receive some form of social and economic return, because these children will eventually become the professionals needed to ensure that society continues to function and, in many cases, that the fiscal system remains balanced. If we are to survive, we need doctors, teachers and judges, we need people, human beings... Even if robots can replace humans in some cases, it is only the existence of men and women that justifies having them.

So, family can only have a future if there is any future at all. But in order to respect the human right to found a family, the rest of society and the rest of the world need to acknowledge and respect it, because the whole society and the whole world benefits from it.

About the definition of family

A study by the Pew Research Center in 2011 asked 2,691 randomly chosen adults whether seven trends were "good, bad or of no consequence to society." The trends were: "more unmarried couples raising children; more gay and lesbian couples raising children; more single women having children without a male partner to help raise them; more people living together without getting married; more mothers of young children working outside the home; more people of different races marrying each other; and more women not ever having children."

What does really define a family? Biological links? The presence of a mother and a father? Intergenerational links? In reality, none of these, because some families have adopted children, or only one parent is left, or there is only one generation present. Yet not every social group is a family, of course.

The fact is that, although there is a universal recognition of the importance of the family, there is no formal consensus on its definition, which has been a real obstacle for progress in the effective design and implementation of family policy. It is therefore more productive to focus on family functions and to assess the impact of policies from a family–focused perspective. Following that suggestion, I would propose this ‘definition’ of family: "Family is basically where life begins and love never ends." Not just one or the other, but both.

Some recent resolutions of the UN General Assembly say precisely this — "the family has the primary responsibility for the nurturing and protection of children, and that children, for the full and harmonious development of their personality, should grow up in a family environment and in an atmosphere of happiness, love and understanding." [i. e. A/RES/67/142] In other words, a family is not only where children are born, but also where they are raised, brought up and educated. Human beings take longer than any other species to do this, because they need to be mature not only physically, but also mentally.

I recently came across this wonderful quote: "No one falls in love by choice, it is by chance. No one stays in love by chance, it is by work. And no one falls out of love by chance, it is by choice." [1] So you can’t choose who you feel attracted to, but you can definitely choose who you stay with.

In other words, romantic love can’t lead to a family by itself; it needs to be followed by commitment. Both include a basic role not only for mothers, but also for fathers. This is what Target 5.4 of the new 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda calls "shared responsibility", both "within the household and the family", as "nationally appropriate."

From freedom to responsibility, from rights to duties

Commitment is about freedom, not just luck or destiny. And there should also be responsibility. Maybe, as well as being "nationally appropriate", the type of commitment should also always be "personally appropriate."

It is clear by now that the role of the father is as important as the role of the mother. If family is about having children and raising them, the commitment to do this should involve both parties, not just one. Different experts have pointed out the importance of emphasizing duties and not only rights or, in other words, the rights of the children and not only the rights of the parents, as the Convention on the Rights of the Child does when prioritizing "the best interests of the child."

This emphasis on human obligations is necessary for several reasons. Of course, this idea is new only to some regions of the world; many societies have traditionally conceived of human relations in terms of obligations rather than rights. This is true, in general terms, for instance, for much of Eastern thought. While traditionally in the West, at least since the 17th Century age of enlightenment, the concepts of freedom and individuality have been emphasized, in the East, notions of responsibility and community have prevailed.

The fact that a Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drafted instead of a Universal Declaration of Human Duties undoubtedly reflects the philosophical and cultural background of the document’s drafters who, as we know, represented the Western powers who emerged victorious from the Second World War.

The concept of human duties serves to balance the notions of freedom and responsibility: while rights relate more to freedom, duties are associated with responsibility. Despite this distinction, freedom and responsibility are interdependent. Responsibility, as a moral quality, serves as a natural, voluntary check for freedom. In any society, freedom can never be exercised without limits. Thus, the more freedom we enjoy, the greater the responsibility we bear, towards others as well as ourselves. The more talents we possess, the bigger the responsibility we have to develop them to their fullest capacity. We must move away from the freedom of indifference towards the freedom of involvement.

The opposite is also true: as we develop our sense of responsibility, we increase our internal freedom by fortifying our moral character. When freedom presents us with different possibilities for action, including the choice to do right or wrong, a responsible moral character will ensure that the former will prevail.

Sadly, this relationship between freedom and responsibility is not always clearly understood. Some ideologies have placed greater importance on the concept of individual freedom, while others concentrate on an unquestioning commitment to the social group.

Without a proper balance, unrestricted freedom is as dangerous as imposed social responsibility. Great social injustices have resulted from extreme economic freedom and capitalist greed, while at the same time cruel oppression of people’s basic liberties has been justified in the name of society’s interests or communist ideals.

Either extreme is undesirable. At present, with the disappearance of the East-West conflict and the end of the Cold War, humankind seems closer to the desired balance between freedom and responsibility. We have struggled for freedom and rights. It is now time to foster responsibility and human obligation.

Equal opportunities and egalitarianism

The principle of ‘shared responsibility’ has a lot to do, in consequence, with the real participation of the father in the distribution of duties. It implies what is usually referred to as ‘gender equality’, but in my opinion this term is not always well understood. Some understand it as equal opportunities for both parents, but many others tend to confuse it with egalitarianism.

Equality means equal opportunities, not just 50%. This is not just against discrimination of women, but also about complementarity. An effective design of a family project should take into account the abilities, skills and preferences of both parties.

There is discrimination of women when they are forced to accept a labour market designed by men for men, under the ‘old’ concept of men who don’t participate in the household tasks and in raising their children. Only women actually give birth to children, but both educate them, and therefore both should have that flexibility. It is interesting to consider that the only countries where the birth rate is increasing are those in which more women are in the labour market, not the other way round. [2] Why? Because there is flexibility.

In other words, just as parenting has become a verb in the 20th century, ‘fathering’should be a new addition to our vocabulary, together with ‘mothering’. A common effort is required to achieve this – by the State, the public sector and the private sector. An important role should be given to employers, both in the public and private sector, because the possibility of achieving the goals of family design can only become a reality if both parents can reconcile their jobs with their family lives.

This change can be promoted in different ways: for example, through external awards (like the Italian Audit project) or certification for those who do (like the Spanish Family-Friendly certification); through private initiatives in the companies themselves (like the employer’s clubs in some South American countries); or, more generally, through supporting part-time working arrangements according to parental choice by ensuring non-discriminatory practices towards all parents in the labour market. 

The effort that has been made for so long to protect human rights, focusing primarily on women and young people, could be improved even further by adding the family as a political priority, particularly in matters such as investment in health, housing and education. This step would also help women and young people – who, naturally, form part of the family–, given that family break-ups have contributed to the feminization of poverty. And, indirectly, this would also help to promote the role of fathers and the correct consideration of women by employers.

Therefore, dialogue and partnerships between social policy makers and relevant stakeholders, including families, family associations, the business sector, trade unions and employers should be enhanced to develop and improve family-friendly policies and practices in the workplace. This should include both housework and care, because, in reality, both are a form of care, housework having important implications for the well-being of all members of the family.

How can this be achieved? My proposal includes three very clear recommendations: policies to promote education about freedom and rights; information and advice regarding responsibility and duties; and legislation on both these areas. 


[1] Quoted by Seth Adam Smith in his article ‘Real Love is a choice’
[2] Angela Luci and Olivier Thévenon, ‘Does economic development explain the fertility rebound in OECD countries?’ (‘Population & Societies’- Institut National d’Etudes Démographiques, 09-2011).


Prepared by Ignacio Socias 


IFFD is developing activities to promote relations within the United Nations and the European Union regarding family-related issues. IFFD is a member and has been conferred General Consultative Status on the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC) of the United Nations, it chairs the NGOs Committee of the United Nations for the Family in Vienna and has standing representation in the main headquarters of the UNO: New York, Geneva and Vienna.


Download IFFD's Papers nº 52 "Implications of the gender gap" (1 April 2016)
Visit International Federation for Family Development's website