The World Congress of Families (WCF), which kicks of on Friday morning in Warsaw, is not, in fact, a world congress of families. If it were, it would probably look a little different. No, this is a meeting of activists, academics, and policymakers—primarily from the United States—whose careers are based on telling the rest of us what the family is and what the family isn't. They come together this week to bravely defend the "natural family" from—as Thomas Fleming put it in his address to the last World Congress—"a sinister coalition of feminists, socialists, and big business interests." Lock the doors!
I probably shouldn't have to tell you what the natural family is, since of course we all already know what it is. According to the organizers of the WCF, any doubts you might have about who counts as a natural family, and who does not, can be easily blamed on confusion propagated by the evil trifecta above, joined by their trusted allies, Gay People Worldwide. The natural family, per the WCF website, anyway, "is what it is, a totally self-evident expression." Despite its self-evident nature, however, a helpful definition of the natural family is available on the "Principles" page of the conference website: "The natural family is the fundamental social unit, inscribed in human nature, and centered on the voluntary union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage." Just to clarify, the natural family "does not require a discussion of negative incompatibilities to define itself."
Well, I really hate to be negative, but I just spent nine months in Nicaragua, and I must say that if all natural families center on "the voluntary union of a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage," then Nicaragua is a pretty unnatural place. In Nicaragua, 35 to 40 percent of households are female-headed (meaning single-female-headed), and lots of those single moms are adolescent girls, thanks to a culture of silence around adolescent sexuality and state- and church-led opposition to young people's right to information about their bodies. De facto polygamy is common; it's not unusual for a man to have children (who he may or may not recognize and/or support) from two or three different women.
Poverty is also widespread: Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (after Haiti). As a result, many heterosexual couples cannot even afford to get married, but live in common-law unions instead. A 2001 study revealed that in 57 percent of households, no family member had a fixed income (the figure rose to 70 percent for single-female-headed households). Scarcity of economic opportunities means that many Nicaraguans opt for migration as a means to sustain their families—either to the States, to Guatemala, or to Costa Rica, where over a fifth of Nicaragua's population currently lives, and where 8 in 10 migrants are young moms. When mothers migrate, grandmothers and sisters usually assume the burden of childcare, even if there's a father in the picture. And it should come as no surprise that across Latin America, social unrest in the families of women who migrate is often blamed on the mother's absence. In a country with as weak an economy as Nicaragua's, women who would rather not migrate and abandon their children face a series of unattractive alternatives: badly paid domestic work, dehumanizing work in a textile factory, or sex work. Mothers who opt for sex work in the interest of providing for their children are, of course, considered whores.
People like Janice Shaw Crouse of WCF co-sponsor Concerned Women for America are fond of blaming this whole situation on feminism—a view that reflects not only a staggering lack of analytical sophistication, but also an appalling ignorance (or willful denial) of global macroeconomic realities. Of course, Crouse could just be using the word "world" loosely, as in "The World Series." I wouldn't be so concerned if her views weren't shared by policymakers and religious leaders across Latin America, and increasingly, in the United States. In Nicaragua, for example, conservative politicians and Catholic Church leaders regularly champion the nuclear family as the natural solution to society's problems (which conveniently affirms the neoliberal vision of an all-but-nonexistent state), and love to blame feminists and gay people for every social ill under the sun. Meanwhile, it seems difficult for them to find time to discuss how Nicaraguan families in general and mothers in particular might be supported in their efforts to be the backbone of society in a place where 45 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. In 1997 former Nicaraguan President Arnoldo Alemán even went so far as to collapse the Ministry of Women and the National Commission on Maternal Mortality into a newly created Ministry of the Family, which defined the family as "a man, a woman, and their children," despite Nicaraguan realities. The new ministry was also responsible for monitoring the activities of prominent feminists, and even went so far as to deport a woman who had started the only clinic in the remote municipality of Mulukukú, based on (false) charges that she was performing illegal abortions.
Which brings me to the point: I wouldn't have an issue with the WCF's glorification of the natural family if it wasn't such an obvious cover for the participants' real agendas: opposing gender equality, sexuality education, family planning, safe abortion, and the human rights of gay people (marrying and starting a family are human rights after all), and demanding that families worldwide be held to a standard that macroeconomic realities have rendered impossible in many countries. While pro-natalist North Americans extol the virtues of large families to their friends assembled in Warsaw, Nicaraguan campesinas struggle to feed seven children when they can't even feed themselves. Don't get me wrong—I'm not against big families, or families at all (which is so obvious I can't even believe I have to say it)—but I am against declaring what's best for the world when you have virtually no interest in talking about how most people in the world live. Calling yourself "pro-family" just because you hate gay people and feminists and oppose artificial contraception is like calling yourself "pro-life" because you think abortion should be illegal: it doesn't actually mean anything.