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The importance of family

A black and white photograph of an infant’s hand resting on an older individual’s outstretched palm.

The Pope, in a recently released documentary Francesco, announced, “Homosexual people have a right to be in a family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or be made miserable over it.” He further said, “What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” 

This is a huge announcement, especially because the Catholic Church’s teachings don’t recognise homosexuality and are against same-sex marriages. It is also a big step forward because irrespective of religious teachings, it emphasises the role of family as a support system, and the right of homosexual people to have one. Families are definitely important and we need families that are representative of people – different types and not just the traditional, stereotypical ones, so that we have more reference points and can, in turn, influence children to be inclusive in thought and in action. We also need to invest in robust family structures and make sure they have the support, information and resources needed to strengthen their members.

“Our Family” is usually one of the first essays we are asked to write in school. Family is the most important influence in children’s lives, nurturing them from birth and taking care of their physical and emotional needs till they can do so themselves. Although family plays an important part throughout our lives, we often take it for granted. We may also have a love-hate relationship with our family as sometimes their views can be stifling, there could be violence, but at the same time we cannot ignore that most family members are blood relatives who we cannot ‘divorce’ ourselves from. Whether we like it or not, most of us are influenced, guided, motivated, and affected by our family. And it is usually during times of crisis like a job loss or an emotional upheaval, and now, the COVID-19 pandemic, that we turn to them for solace, support and help.

This may not be true for many people though, as families which are essentially social structures may be guided by tenets of religion, and socio-cultural norms. Family members might be conservative in their outlook or have negative views about sexuality and in some cases, even be violent. In such environments it might be difficult for one to even claim to have a safe space in a social structure that is so intimate and supposed to be nurturing. Nevertheless, it is still important for one to have a right to a family, whether inherited through birth or defined by choice.

When dealing with stress, anxiety, depression or even violence, one of the most quoted pieces of advice is: Reach out to a support system. Family, immediate and extended, is usually who you turn to. They are the ones who provide stress relief and reduce anxiety by boosting self-confidence and self-esteem and providing a protective shield. There is a sense of belongingness in good times and in bad.

Therefore, if a country wants well-adjusted citizens, they must invest in the family and ensure that these structures – traditional and otherwise – have the capabilities to cope with the needs of their members. For example, Sweden has a parental leave policy that, when a child is born, mandates that both parents avail of leave equally for the State-given benefits to apply. This family leave policy has encouraged fathers to take a more hands-on approach in their children’s care and in the process, serve as role models as children can see their fathers equally involved in domestic and caregiving work as is traditionally expected of women.

This is important as in many patriarchal cultures like India, women do more than their fair share of domestic and emotional caregiving work based on gender norms and stereotypes. According to a recent government study, Indian women do five additional hours of work at home daily on average as compared to their male counterparts. This gendered role perpetuates the stereotype that a woman’s place is at home and that she is not the primary breadwinner.

Families should also be a place where one can air one’s doubts and request clarifications growing up, regarding one’s changing body, mood swings, menstruation, as well as sexuality. Parents are often the first to notice the various milestones in a child’s growth and can seek resources to help their children adjust to different stages of growing up and life. Therefore, it is important that our institutions – the State, religion and others – provide accurate information to parents in order to educate them so that they, in turn, can provide proper guidance to their children.

I am reminded of a gender sensitivity workshop that I did at a college in Mumbai where a teenage boy asked me if it was okay to reject the sexual advances of his girlfriend as he wanted to wait till he was older and got married. Ideally, this (and much more) is a question he should be comfortably discussing with his parents. But how many young people are comfortable talking to their parents about sexuality and vice versa? At another workshop that I did at a school for parents on child sexual abuse prevention, one of the parents came up to me and said that they were relieved we were going to host workshops for their children as they then wouldn’t have to talk to their children about child sexual abuse. I gently reminded the parent that our workshops were only a starting point for a discussion which should be carried on in the family, and recommended that the family create an environment where the children could easily approach their parents and trust them enough to be able to bring up sensitive topics for discussion.

Therefore it is important that our policies and laws reflect the need and investment necessary to strengthen the family unit in supporting all its members – from parental leave, to education, to childcare, to the legal recognition of diverse kinds of unions, and more. Further, it is each person’s right that their family be a safe space that they can turn to for information, empathy, and love. For, as the Pope rightly said, each one of us deserves to be part of a family.

Cover Image: Pixabay

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