On 23 June 2014, the Human Rights Council decided, through its resolution 26/11, to convene a panel discussion on the protection of the family, “reaffirming that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State […]”. The sponsors of the resolution expressed their cardinal motive as being the protection of the family so that it can fully assume its responsibilities within the community. The resolution was passed by 26 votes to 14, with 6 abstentions.
The concept note for the work of the panel emphasized the role families play in development, expounding on the role of the family in “fostering social development, its strong force for social cohesion and integration, and … its primary responsibility for the nurturing, guidance, and protection of children”. It envisages “designing, implementing and promoting family-friendly policies and services, such as…campaigns to sensitize public opinion on equal sharing of employment and family responsibilities between women and men,… as well as developing the capacity to monitor the impact of social and economic decisions and actions on the well-being of families, on the status of women within families, and on the ability of families to meet the basic needs of their members.” It emphasised the structural problems of care responsibilities and the need not only to redistribute them between women and men, as required by CEDAW, but also between family and state, by provision of a protection floor for care services, which is a welcome departure and is in accordance with the recommendation of the Expert Group to the Council on 16 June 2014.
However, the resolution and the concept note raise grave concerns as they fail to reiterate women’s right to equality in the family, referring rather to women’s status within families. The author of this note, as Chair-Rapporteur of the Expert Group on Discrimination against Women, sent a letter to the President of the Council requesting his intervention, pointing out these documents produced a retrogression in women’s human right to equality in the family, guaranteed under the 1948 UDHR, the 1966 ICCPR and the 1980 CEDAW Article 16.
Silence in the Human Rights Council on the right of women to equality in the family is not innocuous. It is a denial of the crucial 20th century gain of women’s right to equality within families, which had constituted a dramatic departure from the prior cultural and religious norm of the patriarchal family. Indeed, many of the countries supporting the Resolution had made reservations to CEDAW’s Article 16, denying women the right to equality in the family on grounds of religion, and had also spearheaded the previous Resolutions of the Human Rights Council calling for restoration of traditional values in the interpretation of human rights. Opposition by some other states to the Resolution focused on the failure to recognize the diversity of families rather than on equality for women. In the key messages from a Human Rights Council panel discussion on 15 September 2014, an important human rights move was made in acceptance that diversity of families should be respected and that violence within the family should be countered. However, the right of women to equality in the family was still not mentioned.
In a statement on the 30th September 2014, the Special Procedures mandate holders took note of the developments in the Human Rights Council on the “protection of the family” and expressed concern regarding the fact that there had been no reference to women’s and girl’s right to equality within the family. The statement called on the Human Rights Council to ensure that in all future resolutions, concept notes and reports on the issue of the family, the right to equality between women and men, as well as between girls and boys, within the family must be explicitly included as a fundamental human right.
As stated in the Human Rights Council resolution, the family is indeed the “fundamental group unit of society”. Hence, it is for this very reason that the progress of women and girls depends on the recognition in law and practice of their right to equality with men in every aspect of family life. Furthermore, women’s contribution to the economic and social lives of their families and communities is a foundation stone of families’ role in development and development is only sustainable on a basis of their equality with men within the family.