Maria Hanif Al-Qassim :
The past few decades have brought about sweeping changes to family structures around the world, forcing governments to adjust to the new reality by stepping in to fill the void that was once occupied by family members in previously family-centric communities. These changes came about primarily as a result of shifts in economic paradigms, such as the Great Depression of the 1930s and the rise of capitalism, as well as consumerism and individualism globally. While it may be impossible to halt the changes to family structures, it is quite possible for governments to play a more proactive role in strengthening familial ties, particularly in countries where the disintegration of families has been slower, by putting family wellbeing at the center of their policy decisions.
In a previous article published by Arab News, I wrote about the many benefits of having strong family and community relationships, and why they represent the real wealth of nations. Historically, such relationships formed the foundation of economies and fulfilled many functions now being carried out by the state, such as health care, childcare, care of the elderly, and pensions and insurance provisions, in addition to countless other social services. While there is no denying the benefits of having governments regulate how societies in general function (in terms of ensuring justice, safety and security, access to public services and rights), what we need is a model whereby governments strengthen bonds between family members and help them fulfill their roles as one of the welfare pillars of society. The sociologist Michael Young emphasized to British social planners in the 1950s that “many working class families operate continuously as agencies for mutual aid of all kinds” — an idea we are quite familiar with (albeit subconsciously) here in the Arabian Gulf.
Given the tremendous value of families and their stability, policymakers in all fields must first and foremost consider the impact of any policy decision on families. Sheila Kamerman and Alfred Kahn define family policy as “everything that government does to and for the family.” The American academics advocate a “family perspective” in policy-making in all fields. Explicit “family policies,” they argue, focus on family creation, economic support, child-rearing and caregiving. They say the impact of any policy (whether or not it was primarily designed to affect families) on family wellbeing, stability and relationships should be considered.
Family policy the way we know it today includes everything from child maintenance after parental separation and the legal framework of divorce, domestic violence, underage crime and elderly care. While policies concerning health care, housing, substance abuse and unemployment may not, at first, strike us as family-related policies, very often the state of families are at the root of such issues, and they can be instrumental in finding permanent solutions. An unstable family puts its members at risk of an array of social, health and economic problems.
Given the tremendous value of families and their stability, policymakers in all fields must first and foremost consider the impact of any policy decision on families.
Maria Hanif Al-Qassim
Consider this example: Nora and Abdulla are the parents of four children (two of them in their teens) and are divorcing after 18 years of turbulent and, at times, abusive marriage. Nora was the 16th daughter of an old man known for his many marriages, and an Asian child bride. Her father died when she was 17 and she was married off that same year to Abdulla, who was 15 years her senior and a divorcee with five children. Abdulla (a product of divorce himself) moves into a small two-bedroom flat and is now burdened with supporting a total of nine children and his ailing mother, as well as himself. Nora decides to apply for state support, but the process turns out to be both complicated and time-consuming. Given her lack of a college degree and work experience, her options are bleak. Eventually she manages to get a night shift job at an airport on a basic salary. Nora then asks her aging mother to move out of her very old house and in with her and the children. The children grow up neglected by both their parents, developing emotional problems that will lead some of them to substance abuse, dropping out of school, unemployment, poverty, depression, and overall unstable relationships with those around them.
Though fictional, cases similar to Nora and Abdulla’s are in fact quite common around the world. Whether dealing with unemployment or drug abuse, government policies for the most part have been reactive, specifically because they misplace families and their roles in the process of policymaking. Families must be at the very center of policymaking, regardless of the field or sector, because they truly can make or break societies, economies and nations as a whole. The impact left by broken homes and unstable families does not stop at one generation, but tends to be passed down indefinitely, creating generations of unstable individuals, families and societies.
Governments today see their role mainly as providers of care for vulnerable citizens (most notably those who are very young, very old or chronically ill), who were affected by changing family structures, putting huge strains on state resources. What should be given more attention is the proper instatement of family structures, and through them the prevention of the social and economic issues plaguing modern nations today. To pay attention to family structures and family wellbeing is the first step toward ensuring an unwavering emphasis on the collective good.
• Maria Hanif Al-Qassim is an Emirati from Dubai who writes on development, gender and social issues. Twitter: @maria_hanif