2014 - 2015: Rights of the Family

Conference Summary

Webster University’s Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies hosted its seventh Annual Human Rights Conference on October 8-9, 2014. Held at Webster’s home campus in Saint Louis, Missouri, the conference focused on the Rights of the Family in coordination with the 2014/15 Year of International Human Rights (YIHR) theme.

posterOn Wednesday morning, Washington University law professor Susan Appleton provided a framework for family rights law in the United States. She highlighted how family rights within U.S. law and Supreme Court cases are ultimately about protecting choice, self-determination and  liberty in private life. While many examples showed positive developments toward greater respect for family diversity in the U.S., we also see connections to gender discrimination and state controls on sexuality within law and policy making. Appleton noted that the “gold standard” in families is still marriage, and there’s little space for relationships that look different from this norm. There are also sometimes  consequences for protecting the family as a unit, rather than focusing on individual rights. For instance, we see cases of intimate  partner violence when respect for family means that individuals suffer harm. Another issue that Appleton raised was the potential conflict between parental rights and children’s rights. Do children have a right to make their own choices, even when that choice opposes the parents’ wishes? For instance, in cases when children want to attend sex education classes that their parents opted them out of. 

Building on this legal background, Kate Kuvalanka – a professor of family studies at Miami University in Ohio – began her plenary lecture by highlighting the need for legal  protections for lesbian and gay parents who aren’t biologically connected to the child. This approach forces us to re-conceptualize our traditional understanding of the family. She outlined progress in the U.S. toward marriage equality, but also noted issues like health care, poverty, and non-discrimination in employment that all affect LGBTQ families but are  rarely addressed in that context. She also asked  the audience to honor November 20 at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, in which we remember the transgender victims of intolerance who died from murder and suicide. Kuvalanka’s “The TransKid Project” studies families with transgender and gender-nonconforming children, looking for ways to fight stigma and save lives. Kuvalanka reports that knowledge must be shared, including among pediatricians and health insurance companies, to understand the perspectives of transgender children and avoid stigma, persecution, and risks of suicide. Her project is ongoing action research, and it is only one piece of a larger puzzle for investigating LGBTQ issues around the world.

 jacqbhabhaJacqueline Bhabha of Harvard University then turned the discussion toward adolescent rights, including the rights of young people undertaking dangerous  migration  in places like Mediterranean Europe  and Central America. She argues that “the cost of inaction, the cost of  not thinking about this, is dramatic.” Bhabha highlighted the connections  between migration, inequality, and sex trafficking. In many cases, the  need to GET OUT of bad situations at home forces minors into hopeless  situations elsewhere. The line between consent and coercion is  therefore blurred, since poverty and violence inhibit free choice. Another “desperate exit strategy” is child marriage in places like Syria, where parents may see marriage as security for their children against  harassment, poverty, and rape. Other “costs of inaction” on this issue include the fact that only 6 percent of girls in rural India attend university, while many former child soldiers in Sierra Leone now work as sex workers. Bhabha argues that we need to use a rights-based approach to combat these social ills and fill the vacuum of protection. While some extreme circumstances galvanize public attention – such as the 2012 case of gang rape in Delhi, India – we see continued ambivalence toward the social and economic concerns of adolescents. Bhabha’s own work focuses on the concept of “positive deviance,” studying the ways in which young people fight negative norms and strive for something better in their own lives. For instance, a study of 19-year-old girls in India who attended college despite all odds, shows us the impact of key mentors throughout adolescence. Bhabha contends that we need consistent movement toward investing in social and economic infrastructures that support young people in establishing new, more positive social norms. 

 Three breakout sessions split the group into three classroom spaces on Wednesday afternoon: 

  • Pamela Sumners from NARAL Pro Choice Missouri talked about political challenges related to abortion rights.     
  • Hasmik Chakaryan and Stacy Henning from Webster’s Professional Counseling program discussed methods for assisting non-traditional families through major life transitions.
  • David Nehrt-Flores from Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates outlined the challenges that U.S. immigration policies create for migrant families.

To round out the first day of the conference, Sara Shoener – a researcher with New York City’s Human Resources Administration – shared her doctoral research on female survivors of intimate partner violence. She provided incredible stories of women who struggled not only against their abusers, but also against a system that was supposed to support them. Well-intentioned actions and resources may sometimes put families at risk. According to Shoener’s research, the courts prioritize two-parent families and sometimes open up partners and children to further abuse. Determined to protect the father-son relationship, for instance, one judge allowed unsupervised visits with a father who regularly beat and tormented his young child. The federal welfare system also promotes and privileges two-parent families, including marriage. For instance, President Obama praised marriage in a State of the Union address while Mitt Romney argued that stronger families would reduce gun violence. The internalized bias of survivors, as well as community-enforced biases that pressure women to “suck it up and keep the family together,” often leads to increased violence and security risks. Particularly striking was the fact that a court distributed brochures entitled “Kids Need Dads” right outside a protection order court, where women went to seek restraining orders against their abusers. In fact, claims of abuse were often used against women who participated in Shoener’s study; they were called petty and told they were trying to alienate fathers.

 lkOn Thursday morning, Webster University professor Lindsey Kingston discussed the connection between family rights and statelessness. There are approximately 13 million stateless people in the world, meaning that they do not have legal nationality to any country. While the right to a nationality is established in international law, statelessness also serves as a “root cause” of additional rights violations such as the inability to attain a basic education or legal  employment, discrimination and inequality before the law, and vulnerabilities to human trafficking. Kingston outlined how statelessness often begins in childhood (with a lack of birth certificates and state recognition, for instance) and creates lifelong human rights challenges. Using case study examples from places such  as North Cyprus and Egypt, she noted that stateless people are often “invisible” and outside of government protection. Other issues include gender discrimination in citizenship laws that often render women and their children stateless, obstacles  to family reunification in times of crisis, challenges to the right to health (including  family planning and reproductive health), and emerging concerns related to statelessness and commercial surrogacy.

 Breakout sessions again split the group into three smaller classroom spaces,  providing opportunities for dialogue and brainstorming:

  • Kevin Drollinger, Executive Director for Epworth Children and Family Services, outlined actions and potential solutions for giving voice to older youth in foster care.
  • Webster University professor Don Conway-Long discussed issues related to “Men, Masculinities, and the Family.”
  • Ann Rosen discussed her photography exhibit and ongoing work related to family. Her exhibit “In the Presence of Family” was on view at the May Gallery during the conference week.   

Kathryn Stam, a professor at State University of New York Polytechnic Institute (SUNY PI), shared stories and images related to her work with central New York’s resettled refugee population. She argues that families face challenges and separation not only during initial crises (such as war and conflict), but also during the resettlement process and because of problems in their country of resettlement. By collecting Facebook images and narratives, sharing stories in the “Refugees Starting Over” project in Utica, and managing the Nepali Folk Collective musical group, Stam studies the lived experiences of resettled refugees and hopes to share their stories with others.  

Joining Stam was Jenjira May Htoo, a SUNY PI graduate student who was resettled to the United States in 2007. A member of the Karen minority group, May’s family fled Burma to Thailand years before resettlement. She lived in a series of refugee camps in Thailand, where she had access to some resources (like shelters and medicine) but sometimes still faced scarcities related to food, clean water, and proper sanitation. Without income, many refugees sneaked out of camps to undertake illegal employment or suffered from severe depression. Here in the United States, May notes that life is better but that many refugees still face challenges related to culture, lack of transportation, language, and the stress of everyday life in America. Many resettled refugees cannot find employment, for instance, and are unfamiliar with laws and paperwork processes. Yet she ended her lecture on a positive note; according to an elder in her community, “The first generation plants the seeds. The second generation gets the shade. The third generation gets the fruit.”   prof

Following the plenary lectures, many speakers gathered for a roundtable discussion moderated by Webster professor Kate Parsons. The panelists included Sara Shoener, Ann Rosen, Kathryn Stam, Jenjira May Htoo, and Lindsey Kingston. Many Webster students and faculty affiliated with the undergraduate International Human Rights program, as well as the Women & Gender Studies program, also participated in the discussion. The roundtable touched on a variety of family rights issues, but one thread of conversation that was particularly lively related to the place of marriage within U.S. society. Why is marriage privileged in laws and policies, as well as in social movement such as the “marriage equality” movement for gays and lesbians within the United States? Participants considered the social pressures to marry, as well as the oft-neglected legal consequences of marriage in cases when relationships fall apart. “Family still has an awful lot of cultural baggage,” reflected Professor Bill Barrett. Ann Rosen noted: “If we can redefine family as a group of people who support each other…then maybe more people will participate in these conversations.”  

Lastly, Marc Solomon’s lecture on “Securing Human Rights in America: Lessons from the Freedom to Marry Movement” took on this issue and outlined the human rights battle for marriage equality in the United States. The National Campaign Director for Freedom to Marry, Solomon visited Webster University during an “amazing and historic week”; because the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear a variety of cases, the number of states with marriage equality climbed from 19 to approximately 35 in a few days. This means that more than 60 percent of Americans would soon live in a state with marriage equality. This represents a dramatic shift from perspectives in the early 2000s, when the Vatican called marriage equality in Massachusetts “a nationality tragedy” and the decision was attacked by both Democrats and Republicans. This issue was the “third rail” for politicians back then, said Solomon; “touch it and die,” with public approval ratings around 30 percent. Yet activists took on the clear (aspiration and inspirational) goal of marriage equality as part of a broader LGBTQ movement, arguing that people should no longer “learn to settle” for second-class citizenship. “To be denied a right is an indignity,” said Solomon. “It hurts.” Gays and lesbians were encouraged to “come out” and tell their stories, to talk to people who were unsupportive in hopes of changing their opinions, and to be active in political elections. “We weren’t trying to change marriage, we wanted to be a part of it,” said Solomon. He notes that while “we’re definitely winning,” it is imperative for activists to keep fighting until marriage equality is gained in all 50 states. “No fight like this is quick or easy,” he said. “The work of changing people’s views about something important is always hard.” 


Webster’s 2014 Annual Human Rights Conference highlighted the need for further study, debate, and advocacy related to the rights of the family. For more information on the speakers click here.

The Institute for Human Rights and Humanitarian Studies will offer a variety of related human rights programming throughout the 2014/15 academic year, so please check the university calendar for updates and visit our website. Next year’s conference will focus on the theme of the Millennium Development Goals in October 2015.


The 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes the family as the “natural and fundamental group unit of society,” and the family is therefore entitled to protection by society and the state. The human rights of the family include a wide range of basic entitlements, including: the right to marry and found a family, equal gender rights within the family, the right to give full and free consent to marriage, the right to family planning, the rights of children to parental care, and the right to family reunification in times of crisis. Because human rights and universal and inalienable, these rights are not prescriptive; families come in all shapes and sizes, and human rights standards do not require families to conform to traditional roles in order to qualify for protection and respect.

Family rights gain salience in different ways around the world, depending on the issues and challenges prevalent in each society. In the United States and Europe, for instance, advocacy related to the rights of the family often intersect with LGBTQ rights – including the rights to gay marriage and adoption. In other parts of the world, issues such as forced marriage and access to family planning are at the forefront of human rights debates. Although advocacy efforts are varied and diverse, the rights of the family are essential for promoting human dignity and protecting the bonds of family love.

Internet Resources on Family Rights

I. The United Nations and Family Rights 

Many thanks to Human Rights Education Associates (HREA) for supplying this information. To learn more about international and regional protections – as well as to access a variety of educational resources on family rights – please visit HREA’s site at http://www.hrea.org/index.php?base_id=158. 

Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948) – Article 16
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948. As a resolution, it is not itself formally legally binding despite common assumptions to the contrary. However, it did establish important principles and values which were later elaborated in legally binding UN treaties. Moreover, a number of its provisions have become part of customary international law. Article 16 upholds family as the natural and fundamental unit in society. It establishes the right of men and women to marry and found a family; their equal rights as to the marriage, and that consent to marriage should be freely given. 

International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (1966) – Article 10
The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) was adopted by the General Assembly in December 1966 and entered into force in 1976. It elaborates the principles laid out in UDHR and is legally binding on all states who have signed and ratified its provisions. Article 10 reiterates some basic rights concerning family life and then goes on to establish further rights of pregnant mothers to maternity leave and social security. 

International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (1966) – Article 23
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) elaborates the principles laid out in UDHR and is legally binding on all states who have signed and ratified its provisions. Article 23 guarantees the right to a family:

1. The family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State.
2. The right of men and women of marriageable age to marry and to found a family shall be recognized.
3. No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.
4. States Parties to the present Covenant shall take appropriate steps to ensure equality of rights and responsibilities of spouses as to marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution. In the case of dissolution, provision shall be made for the necessary protection of any children. 

Declaration on Social and Legal Principles relating to the Protection and Welfare of Children, with special reference to Foster Placement and Adoption Nationally and Internationally (1986)
This document provides important guidelines for the fostering and adoption, including inter-country adoptions of children who lack appropriate parental care. 

Convention on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1962)
This treaty reiterates the right to full consent and also requires states to establish a minimum age for marriage. 

Recommendation on Consent to Marriage, Minimum Age for Marriage and Registration of Marriages (1965)

UN population and development documents including the 1994 Conference on Population and Development Programme of Action, the 1968 Tehran Declaration, 1985 Fourth World Conference in Beijing, all contain provisions regarding the rights of individuals to family planning.

Finally, UN treaties relating to specific categories of persons can also be used to protect the right to family. 

Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees (1951) – Article 12
The UN Refugee Conventions includes guidelines and principles established under the auspices of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees strengthen provisions regarding refugee rights to family. 

Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) (1979) – Articles 9, 16
CEDAW is a very relevant treaty when it comes to discrimination and unequal treatment of women vis-a-vis their status in the family and includes provisions on marriage and nationality (article 9), equality and consent, rights and responsibilities within marriage, family planning, guardianship and adoption, women's right to choose a family name, a profession and an occupation, ownership and property, minimum age for marriage, and compulsory registration of marriages (article 16). 

Convention on the Rights of the Child (1989) – Articles 9, 10, 20, 21, 22
The Children's Convention (CRC) address the separation from parents (article 9), family reunification (article 10 and 22) and measures for children lacking parental care (article 20, 21). 

International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of all Migrants Workers and Members of Their Families (1990) – Articles 4, 44, 45, 50
The most recent of the main UN human rights treaties entered into force on 1 July 2003. The convention explicitly refers to migrant workers and "members of their family", which are defined as "persons married to migrant workers or having with them a relationship that, according to applicable law, produces effects equivalent to marriage, as well as their dependent children and other dependent persons who are recognized as members of the family by applicable legislation or applicable bilateral or multilateral agreements between the States concerned" (article 4). The treaty recognizes that "the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State, shall take appropriate measures to ensure the protection of the unity of the families of migrant workers". States are also expected to facilitate family reunification and the treaty stipulates that states "shall favorably consider granting equal treatment, as set forth in paragraph 2 of the present article, to other family members of migrant workers" (article 44). Members of the families of migrant workers shall enjoy equality of treatment with nationals with regard to access to education, social and health services and participation in cultural life. States also have to facilitate integration of children of migrant workers in the local school system, particularly in respect of teaching them the local language and the mother tongue and culture (article 45). Finally the treaty stipulates that in case of death of a migrant worker or dissolution of marriage, the state of employment shall favorably consider granting family members of that migrant worker residing in that state an authorization to stay (article 50). 

II. Organizations Promoting the Rights of the Family Worldwide

Do you know of an organization that you’d like to add to this list? E-mail humanrights@webster.edu to help us expand this resource guide. 

Freedom to Marry: Focusing on gay marriage rights in the United States, Freedom to Marry creates the climate for a Supreme Court victory by working on three tracks: growing the national majority for marriage, winning the freedom to marry in more states, and ending federal marriage discrimination. Freedom to Marry partners with individuals and organizations across the country to end the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage and the protections, responsibilities, and commitment that marriage brings. www.freedomtomarry.org

Girls Not Brides: Girls Not Brides is a global partnership of more than 300 civil society organisations from over 50 countries working to address child marriage. Members are based throughout Africa, Asia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas and are united by a commitment to end child marriage and enable girls to fulfil their potential.www.girlsnotbrides.org

Global Fund for Women: The Global Fund advances the rights of women and girls by increasing the resources for an investing in women-led organizations and women’s collective leadership for change. The organization envisions a just, equitable, and sustainable world in which women and girls have resources, voice, choice, and opportunities to realize their human rights. www.globalfundforwomen.org

Human Rights Campaign (HRC): As the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Americans, the Human Rights Campaign represents a force of more than 1.5 million members and supporters nationwide – all committed to making HRC's vision a reality. Founded in 1980, HRC advocates on behalf of LGBT Americans, mobilizes grassroots actions in diverse communities, invests strategically to elect fair-minded individuals to office and educates the public about LGBT issues. www.hrc.org 

Save the Children: The world’s leading independent organization for children, Save the Children works in approximately 120 countries to promote children’s rights, to provide life-saving services, and to help children fulfill their potential. The organizations aims to inspire breakthroughs in the way the world treats children and to achieve immediate and lasting change in their lives. www.savethechildren.org

For a more complete directory of Family Rights organizations, you can access and download our family rights organizations resource guide here  


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