The family is a universal phenomenon - throughout the centuries and throughout the world. Yet families manifest themselves in widely different forms, and perceptions of the role of the family vary among societies and cultures.
The diversity in family structures worldwide has often been stressed by the UN, and promoting an accurate understanding of families in all their forms among Governments, policy-makers and the public is a major objective of the international Year of the Family.
Historically, in most cultures the family has been patriarchal or male-dominated. One example is given in the Old Testament, where male heads of a clan were allowed several wives, as well as concubines. In ancient Rome, the family was also patriarchal, but polygamy was not practised. The Roman family was an extended one, and the patriarch had the authority even to kill his sons.
In medieval Europe, the family was influenced by the practices of the Roman Catholic church and feudalism; it was generally extended and male-dominated. In contrast, Muslim women of the same period had considerable control over their own personal property.
The industrial revolution spawned great changes in family structure. Industrialization and urbanization prompted a marked change in life and working styles. Many people, especially the young, left the farms to work in factories. This process led to the dissolution of many extended families.
At the same time, patriarchal rule slowly gave way to greater equality between the sexes. Stereotyping of male and female roles within the family broke down. No longer was caring for the home and children the exclusive duty of women, nor earning a living and pursuing a public life the exclusive domain of men. Many wives started working outside the home, just as many husbands started sharing tasks to maintain a household.
Traditional definitions of family structure tend to be based on two major types: the nuclear and the extended. Nuclear families, which usually contain just two generations - parents and children - include one-parent and adoptive families.
Extended families, involving several generations, include polygamous marriages, which are culturally accepted in most African countries and tribal groups, where families are built upon a social rather than a biological basis. Responsibility for child care may be taken by several people, including aunts and uncles. This type of family rarely neglects children because there is an abundance of...