Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family: A Reflection on the Status of the Family in Liberia

By Cecil Franweah Frank

The Perspective
Atlanta, Georgia

March 8, 2004

The United Nations General Assembly, in its resolution 44/82 of December 8, 1989, proclaimed 1994 as the International Year of the Family (IYF). The observance of the year served to highlight the role of the family as the basic social unit in every society and the need to pay adequate attention to the family dimension in development efforts. The significance of the International Year of the Family lies in its reinforcement of the interrelationship between family well-being and sustainable development.

This year marks the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family. Because of the different definitions of the family, there are also various definitions that illuminate different aspects of "family policy." The tenth anniversary of the International Year of the Family, which was launched on 4 December 2003, is to be marked through out this year, culminating in the holding of one plenary session of the Assembly on the topic of families, and it constitutes an important opportunity to give a new impetus to the general status of families, and in particular the status and role of families in Liberia as it emerges from a long spell of civil carnage.

To coincide with the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family, the Programme of the Family, which is under the Division for Social Policy and Development within the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations, identified five trends that have an explicit impact on family life around the globe in a global study entitled 'Major trends affecting families world-wide':

1. Changes in family structure, which includes shift from extended to nuclear families as well as rise of one-person households, falling fertility rates, increases in divorce rates and so forth;

2. Demographic ageing, specifically lower fertility rates and higher life expectancy contributing to a larger share of older persons within the overall population, support ration (number of working people in relation to retired persons) have been declining and ageing impacts on inter-generational solidarity, housing, social security systems, care giving and health costs;

3. Rise of migration - violence, discrimination, natural disasters and the hope for better economic opportunities have been the main factors for migration, seasonal and internal migration of men contributing to higher number of female-headed households around the world, trafficking and sexual exploitation of women and children have increased and have become a major part of organized crime. By 2002 it was estimated that there were 20 million refugees(Liberians inclusive); an estimated 175 million people (3% of the world population) reside outside their country of birth (Liberians inclusive);

4. HIV/AIDS pandemic - affects the most productive members of society who often just started their own families, more than 42 million people live with HIV/AIDS, change in family structure to increasing adolescent and grandparent headed households in some regions of Africa;

5. Impact of globalization - families having to cope with reduced services due to spending cuts in the areas of education and health as well as in general welfare provisions.

In proceeding further, it is necessary to have a glimpse of the state of Liberian families before the outbreak of civil war in 1989.

Throughout the period of my upbringing and living in Liberia, and since I began to follow with keen interest the manner in which our so-called leaders were conducting themselves in state governance, I had noticed that the Liberian government had made little or no efforts to adopt "family sensitive" policies. The family as an institution had been in an abysmal state, awkwardly abandoned and treated with discontempt. It was never at the center of government's governing and developmental priorities.

The governments of Liberia had spectacularly failed to recognize the family as an object and agent of social policy. As such, mechanisms devoted to family policy and research were never developed, strengthened or encouraged. The 1980 coup saw a dive downwards in the values and moral status of the family unit, and the state of the family as a whole became very appalling. The result of the failure to approach the family issue with a semblance of seriousness and far-sightedness, courage and determination contributed immensely to the degeneration of the political, social and economic fabrics of the state, which evidently culminated in the outbreak of the civil war, fuel violence and the salvage and callous attitude exhibited by fighters and the leaders of the uprising, and thereby ensured the horrific and outrageous criminal acts that took place. If anything positive is to be learned by Liberians from their civil crisis, it is that there is a need to rebuild structures starting from the rebuilding of family-centered values.

C. Gyude Bryant, the Chairman of the National Transitional Government of Liberia seems to have acknowledged this in his recent address at the Reconstruction Conference on Liberia in New York. He made it clear in his address that he envisages a society, which would ensure the rebuilding of family values as a condition for reconstruction of Liberia.

Therefore in view of the above, the main question to be asked is whether Liberian families are immuned from the main global trends affecting families worldwide?

The answer to this question is obviously no. Most of the issues raised in the global trends either affected Liberian families before the start of the civil war in 1989 or after the war started and will have a pervasive effect on the future course of the family development in Liberia. For example, before the civil war, the rate of one-person households seems to have been going up largely due to abject poverty, teenage pregnancies and a soaring divorce rate; the ratio of the working masses far outstripped those retired due to poor or even the lack of a viable governmental pension policy thereby threatening the future of the younger generation, health costs were rising, migration was intensifying and so forth. Most of these, in addition to the onset of HIV/AIDS, were exacerbated as a result of the civil war outbreak and will pose a considerable long-term challenge. What this meant in effect was that in a pre-civil war Liberian society the family as a unit for social development became increasing weak and unable to play its proper role within society.

Those objective social and economic factors that were needed to guarantee the cohesion of the family were absent and therefore tearing the basic unit of society apart. The family was not able to serve as a proper tool for imparting values and love for the motherland to the youngsters. One thing that was totally absent before the civil war and needs to be introduced now is that of social security. a viable social security system needs to be built if the family is to be strengthened in Liberia. The absent of such a system has spelt a major set back for family development not only in Liberia, but across Africa as a whole. Liberia will need to harness its resources in achievement of this goal, taking into account the urgent situations and new realities created by the civil war.

In pursuit of the goal of strengthening the family and making sure that it plays a center stage role in the post-civil war social, economic and political development of Liberia, government will have to pay keen attention to the following objectives as stipulated in the proclamation of the Tenth Anniversary of the International Year of the Family:

1. To pay heightened attention to family issues as well as increase awareness
to these issues in the private sector;

2. To strengthen the capacity of national institutions to formulate,
implement and monitor policies in respect of families;
3. To stimulate efforts to respond to problems affecting, and affected by,
the situation of families;

4. To undertake all levels of reviews and assessments of the situation and
needs of families, identifying specific issues and problems;

5. To enhance the effectiveness of local and national efforts to carry out
specific programmes concerning families and generate new activities;

6. To improve collaboration among national and international non-governmental organizations in support of families.

In conclusion, it should be noted that government's economic and envelopment strategies must be tailored-made towards meeting the needs and bolstering the family unit. Family issues must be elevated from the bottom of the national agenda to the top. All policies must evolve around it. Politicians that are currently jostleling for public office in Liberia have yet to define their position with regards to development and strengthening of the family apart from political piecemeal actions and rhetorics. Most of them are paying lipservice to the issue or do not even have an idea as to where to start.

This issue will and should be one of the defining themes in the Liberian election of 2005 and should be used by Liberians as one of the parameters for determining the possible quality of candidates. Also, as part of efforts aimed at strengthening the family, government needs to upgrade the role of women in society so that they would play their proper role as mothers, wives, daughters, as well as the custodian of spirituality, tradition and historical recollection. No serious attempt was made by past governments at improving the plight of women and empowering them apart or few piecemeal actions such as political appointments, and the creation of a Gender Ministry. Most of the women appointed to political office had to earn their appointments not on the basis of their qualifications, as it should be, but on the basis of their intimate relationship with the heads of state.

As we celebrate International Women's Day (March 8), coming just in time with the International Year of the Family, there is a need for us to reflect on this. The furore in Liberia concerning the publication by the Heritage Newspaper of a black woman having intercourse with a dog, if such woman is proven to be a Liberian national, should amount to a conviction of the warlords and politicians alike as they are to largely be blamed for the state of Liberian women, and hence the status of the family in Liberia. Instead of prosecuting journalists and dictating to them what they should publish and what shouldn't, such story should serve as an awakening call to the Liberian political elites to put women and the family at the forefront of their developmental policies. Finally, having said that I would propose that in order to develop, coordinate and bolster state policy concerning families, childhood, motherhood and youth that the Gender Ministry be
re-organized into the Ministry of Family, Children, Gender and Youth, within the framework of which all issues relating to these areas would be addressed. I also urge that March 8 be declared as a national public holiday in Liberia to enable the nation to fully meditate and manifest its appreciation for the role of women in the Liberian society and to commemorate the struggle for women's rights in a more proper and focus manner.

About the Author: Mr. Cecil Franweah Frank is a political consultant, foreign policy specialist and security analyst in Ukraine.