Year of the Family Aims to Shore Up Society Long a Provider of Care for Its Members, the Family Now Seems to Need More of the Same Kind of Support Itself

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KEVIN and Nan Jeffrey of Barnstable, Mass., plan to observe the 1994 United Nations International Year of the Family (IYF) in an unusually adventurous way.

Provided they get the necessary private and corporate support, they intend to spend a full year hiking, biking, canoeing, and camping their way across more than 20 countries from Mexico to Thailand. Their 14-year-old twin sons, Colin and Tristan, and six-month-old daughter, Gwyneth, will go with them. The boys, accomplished violinists, will take their instruments.

The Jeffreys say they want to bring a message of goodwill and respect to all the families they meet, to celebrate family similarities and differences, and, through the education and adventure involved, to strengthen their own family ties.

"Just by doing something challenging with your kids ... it bonds you together in ways it is hard to describe," says Kevin. He adds that he thinks the family is in "deep trouble" as an institution, particularly in industrialized countries where the social fabric that binds families is "slowly getting ripped." Children often do not feel part of the family and parents lack time for them, he says.

The UN is inviting families around the world to observe the International Year of the Family in their own way - and at their own expense. Conferences and seminars, some pegged to the first annual observance of the International Day of the Family on May 15, are the most common choice.

The family, the most basic unit of society, faces multiple new challenges. With more parents in the work force and almost one-third of the world's families now headed by a single parent, many children must fend for themselves more often. Welfare and tax policies sometimes encourage family splits.

"Families are sometimes required to make unfair choices between family cohesion and needed services," says UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali.

Rising rates of divorce, domestic violence, and urban crime add to the strain.

The UN General Assembly decided five years ago to designate 1994 as a year to raise awareness of the new family challenges and to spur the push for better policies and laws to deal with them. The UN held four regional preparatory meetings on the subject in 1993 but views its role primarily as a catalyst.

Some doubted the intent or effectiveness of the effort in the beginning. "You have to realize it's not as attractive a subject as, let's say, narcotic drugs or women's issues," says Henry Sokalski, the Vienna-based UN coordinator for the International Year of the Family. Early doubters included some women's groups. They assumed the family focus might include a call for women to "return to the kitchen," he says. Others, he says, were afraid that the year might stress rights more than family responsibilities.

Mr. Sokalski says he's seen a reversal of much of the early skepticism. More than 130 nations now have national IYF coordinating committees.

The UN has scrupulously avoided defining the family or singling out any form as a model. The official UN logo for the year, which evolved only after 15 trial designs, is an abstract composition of brush strokes depicting a heart sheltered by a roof. "We're trying to encourage the stability that families give, but we're not going to get trapped into any definition of family," notes UN spokesman William Hass. "It's a diversified world and unless we respect that ... we can't achieve any progress," Sokalski adds.

UN officials have gone out of their way to stress that respect for human rights, as guaranteed by UN conventions, is a crucial part of the family discussion. The IYF motto is "Building the smallest democracy in the heart of society." In his remarks at the December launch of IYF in the General Assembly, Mr. …