International Day of Families 2024

May 15, 2024

The Family Under Threat

By Celestine Greenwood, Barrister 

Today is the International Day of Families. Many of you may be wondering whether this is just another made-up day to commemorate something created by the United Nations or, a day fabricated by the greetings card industry to increase sales opportunities. You’d certainly be right on the first count [1] and it seems that greetings cards to mark the day are available for purchase[2] or alternatively, if you’d prefer to make your own, an online video can be accessed to guide you through the process.[3]  Today is no ordinary annual commemoration of the International Day of the Family. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the day, it having been inaugurated on 15th May 1994, a year that was marked as the International Year of the Family (IYF).

Cynicism and scepticism abound around these international commemorative days with many people being ignorant of their existence and others, sometimes including those who are activists in addressing the issues associated with such a day, sceptical that having a ‘special day’ does nothing to advance the rights of those being recognised (think, for example, International Women’s Day) fearing that it is simply a gimmick that at best highlights injustices related to a particular group or issue for just one day only to be forgotten for the remaining 364 days of the year. Similarly, cynicism and scepticism can attach to the concept of “the year of …” However, some (including myself), argue that having a particular day (or year) on which to highlight the situation of a marginalised or oppressed group or a significant issue has a vital role to play in raising awareness about issues, in making us think about and reflect upon the issue and, in encouraging and supporting action to progress towards a more just and equal society. This, arguably, can be said of today – the International Day of Families.

As a member of more than one family (biologically, legally, through marriage, professionally, spiritually and through choice), as a family law barrister and an adherent to international human rights as a governing paradigm who strives for a more just and equal society, today is a poignant and apposite day to reflect upon what ‘family’ means in today’s society and the threats it faces.

The International Day of Families is indeed a construct of the United Nations (U.N.). During the 1980s, the U.N. increasingly attached more importance to family-related concerns culminating in the adoption of a resolution[4] in December 1989 declaring 1994 to be the International Year of the Family.[5] Subsequently in 1993, the General Assembly of the U.N. passed resolution A/RES/47/237 making 15th May the International Day of Families. The foundational principle for the focus on the family is the concept of the family as the basic unit of society which makes it deserving of special attention and protection. This notion of the foundational societal role of the family was adumbrated in the preamble to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) where it is referred to as “the natural environment for the growth and well-being of … children.”[6]  Subsequently in 1995, the  importance of the family as the basic unit of society was recognised at the World Summit for Social Development. The Programme of Action of the World Social Summit also acknowledged that whilst the structure of the family differs across different cultural, political and social systems the family was nonetheless entitled to receive comprehensive protection and support. Indeed, today will see the publication by the U.N. of two important papers, “Climate Change and Families” which will highlight the role of families in transmitting sustainable values through the generations and, “Home, Family, and Climate Change” which will emphasise the need to focus on reducing household CO2 emissions exploring themes such as public health, consumption, remote work, and building climate resilience.

All of this demands a consideration of what is meant and encompassed by the concept of ‘family.’ The Encyclopaedia Britannica, for example, defines ‘family’ as

“a group of persons united by the ties of marriage, blood, or adoption, constituting a single household and interacting with each other in their respective social positions, usually those of spouses, parents, children, and siblings”

and asserts that “the essence of the family group is the parent-child relationship, which may be absent from many marriage pairs.”[7]

The Britannica definition seems to reference the ‘nuclear family’ that became the bulwark of western societies as opposed to any wider, extended or other form of family observed in other cultural and/or religious communities. However, since 1989 when the resolution proclaiming 1994 as the IYF and the seminal Children Act regulating the treatment of children in law in England and Wales were both passed, society and the nature of ‘family’ have changed significantly. Over this period the threats to the family have also changed and crystallised.

The presence of single or lone-parent families and unmarried, cohabiting parent families across the UK has proliferated since 1989. For example, in 1989 there were just over a million lone-parent families in the UK[8] and by 2023 this figure had risen to 3.2 million.  More recently the existence of ‘blended families’ and families with same sex parents have become more commonplace. Arguably, however, the law has failed to keep up with these developments leaving some of these family structures and their integral relationships unrecognised and unprotected by the law. For example, many adults without any biological nexus to a child adopt the role of and are regarded by the child (and others) as a parent. However, unless these adults are married to or in a civil partnership with one of the child’s birth parents (and thereby formally a step-parent) they cannot attain parental responsibility for the child. This situation leaves many so-called ‘psychological’ or ‘de facto’ parents without the legal right to take day-to-day decisions about the child and the child without any formal protection for a relationship that can be much cherished and needed, nurturing and meaningful. This lack of recognition and protection for ‘family’ relationships arguably poses a threat to the security of the family unit and demands a public policy consideration of what the modern family is and whether the law needs to be changed to reflect and meet the needs and regulation of today’s ‘family.’

At the macro level the very existence of the family is threatened both in the UK and around the world by a variety of factors including the incidence of falling birthrates and by the existential threat posed by climate change. In 1989 there were 13.64 live births per 1,000 people in the UK. Since then the overall trend has been downwards with 11.67 live births in 2023 and the U.N. projecting that number to fall to 10.32 in 2050.[9] In January 2022 the Office for National Statistics revealed that of the cohort of women who celebrated their 30th birthday in 1990 50% of them were then childless. The delay in the age at which women are having children, the increase in the numbers of women not having any children at all, economic and other social and demographic factors have all affected the rate at which children are being born both in the UK and around the world.[10] According to research relied upon by the Wall Street Journal in an article published as recently as Monday of this week, the global fertility rate is teetering at or below the level required to keep the population constant.[10] As a result the composition of the family is likely to change from the ubiquitous 2.2 children to one or, to more childless ‘families.’

Climate change, the urgent need to mitigate and adapt to its effects and the impacts on families is the theme for this year’s International Day of Families. Although currently there is only limited research exploring the extent to which individuals are choosing either to limit the number of children they have or, to have no children at all because of concerns about the future habitability of the planet[11] alarmingly, a number of climate scientists recently publicly voiced their grave concerns and attitudes towards having children given the grave risks posed to human beings by climate change.[12] As groups who are vulnerable because of their age and concomitant levels of development, ill-health or infirmity babies, young children and the elderly are particularly at risk from the adverse health impacts of air pollution and climate change.[13] These risks can be particularly acute in densely populated and highly polluted areas such as large parts of the UK. In 2020 the inner south London coroner made legal history by ruling that air pollution was a causative factor in the death in 2013 of a nine-year-old girl.[14] A research paper published by UNICEF in 2018[15] warned that children are breathing unsafe levels of air pollution in 71% of towns and cities in the UK and that approximately 1 in 3 babies in the UK are growing up in areas with unsafe levels of particulate matter. In addition, the impacts of more commonly occurring extreme weather events both in the UK and around the world whilst possibly resulting in injury or death, are increasing the incidence of heat-related and waterborne diseases as well as affecting the availability and financial costs of food and clean drinking water. Moreover, the climate crisis is already magnifying the inequalities and poverty endured by some of our families.

Inequality and poverty are often factors in care proceedings as confirmed by a research review published in March 2022 by the Nuffield Foundation.[16] The review found that reductions in income and other economic shocks  increase the number of children being subjected to neglect and abuse. As Professor Paul Bywaters of the University of Huddersfield  who led the review noted,

From this research, we can be certain that increased pressures on family life will lead to the risk that more children will be subject to harm, abuse and neglect, unless government and service providers can respond more effectively.

Since March 2022 the economic situation has deteriorated further and the cost-of-living crisis has plunged more families in the UK into poverty.[17] This threat to the continued existence of some family units posed by poverty and inequality lurks against a background of the underuse of section 17 of the Children Act 1989 the purpose of which was to identify and support children and families in need and, if possible, avoid the need to escalate the state’s intervention in the family. Disadvantageous adjustments to welfare benefits such as the two-child cap on Child Benefit have only served to reduce income, cause economic shocks and damage families. Similarly, the loss of Sure Start centres and other sources of practical support has only served to add to the threats faced by vulnerable families. And of course, these are also the families most likely to be affected by the impacts of climate change and pollution as a wealth of evidence shows.[18]

So, in commemorating the foundation of the family and recognising it as a force for good today, we must also think about what ‘family’ now is and means and consider the challenges and threats it faces. It is time for a conversation about the continued efficacy of the legal regime that recognises, protects and regulates the family and our relationships within it. It is incomprehensible and scandalous that the world’s fifth largest economy cannot better protect families from the impact of economic shocks and cannot better marshall its resources to support families to prevent the need for more draconian intervention. It is past time that we addressed the factors of poverty and ensured that its scourge is suffered by our children. And, it is almost past time for us to act to protect the family from the impacts of pollution and climate change.

Let today’s 30th anniversary of the International Day of Families be the clarion and effective call to action that we so desperately need.




[4] Resolution 44/82 adopted on 9th December 1989. See:







[11] See Ip, Greg and Adams, Janet, Suddenly There Aren’t Enough Babies. The Whole World is Alarmed, Wall Street Journal, May 13, 2024 at






[17] See for example,,million%20in%202010%2F11%E2%80%9D.,,

[18] See for example, research undertaken by Anglia Ruskin University and CDP Global: