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THE proposition that the family is the basic unit of society is an unremarkable one. However in the context of the Pacific, the term has long been understood as referring to the wider extended relationship based on blood and kinship ties.

It is now changing as globalisation, the market economy and urbanisation exert pressures on communal living. The result is the emergence of evolving structures ranging between extended families, the basic household of parents and children, couples with no children, single-parent families and single people as well.

How can this phenomenon of diversity be taken into account in policy and decision-making? First there must be recognition of this aspect of modern Pacific societies. Unless this happens, there is a risk that initiatives intended to reinforce the family are unsuccessful because they ignore realities on the ground.

There needs to be continual assessment and appraisal of the family profile in our communities in order to determine what mix of policies and support can best strengthen family structures as presently constituted. Out of this process includes the debate about what approaches, if any, are to be adopted regarding the family stricture itself or to endorse a particular structure whether extended, nuclear or combination of both or should we leave that to evolve and provide reinforcement as and when necessary.

The answer is neither one nor the other because social transformation is not a tidy exercise; it is disorderly and haphazard because the plethora influences which shape social change interacting and effecting outcomes in varying degrees and different ways.

Recognising the profound developments taking place at a bewildering pace, it would be useful to identify broad priorities around which policies can be developed and initiatives taken.

Our extended family networks continue to provide a sense of community and are a source of strength in connecting generations. They can also be reinforced as an appropriate means of looking after the elderly and senior citizens, in our midst.

What type of support can be provided by the state to those who chose to care for them?

At the same time we need to recognise the trend towards nuclear families as well as the incidents of single-parent families.

Gender equality and career opportunities for women also mean the expansion of child care facilities to cater for the demands of working women. Gender equality in the full sense of the phrase is providing women with choices and options: whether to have a career outside the home, home-making, both or a combination thereof. They call for flexibility and response action by governments.

In the continuing quest for gender and wider equality, our youth require broad exposure to civic values at school, in places of worship and during organised sport to help shape individual and familial perspectives. It helps in fostering mutual respect, tolerance, civility and compassion that promotes stable families, irrespective of what form they may take which is exactly the point of this contribution, strengthening the family per se so that the young have a safe and secure upbringing whether they are in extended wider single-parent families or in between.

Is there a place for tradition and custom in this conversation?

Families, in its various forms, provide the mechanism for socialisation while custom and tradition are reference points of identity and being. They have a role in reinforcing the familial structures in the 21st century. Recognising and affirming them reinforces societal and community acceptance. It also strengthens kinship ties and social cohesion.

Notwithstanding the ideals we have of happy families, rooted in the various religious traditions we may follow, the world is as we find it and not as we would like. Just as our cultures and customs have demonstrated a measure of acceptance of strangers and outsiders, so they might be more affirming of those within our midst.

In order to support family structures as they evolve amidst the constancy of change and innovation, we need to understand how these factors are affecting them and what the effects are. Only then can the institutions of state and civil society provide the support necessary to ensure the building of peaceable prosperous and secure societies that are founded on happy families whether it is by way of taxation relief, financial support, and parental leave and care and counselling, as well as education and religious backing.

The wellbeing of families is not merely a concern for leaders. It is and should be our collective and highest priority because it is at the heart of our existence as human beings."