Faculty of law blogs / UNIVERSITY OF OXFORD

Changing the Rhetoric around the Socio-Economic Marginalisation of Single-Parent Families: A Human Rights Approach

This blog post is based on the author's presentation at the conference, ‘Contemporary Children and Families: Opportunities and Challenges in Law, Policy and Practice’, which took place at the Centre for Child and Family Law Policy at Edinburgh Napier University on 6–7 September 2023.


Time to read

3 Minutes

As the cost-of-living crisis bites, Gingerbread reports that 40 percent of British single-parents are moderately or severely food insecure with many trapped in a debt cycle that is predicted to last long after the cost-of-living crisis ends. Low wages, inadequate childcare and a social security safety net in tatters have left many single-parent families feeling that they are ‘stuck living in a world [they] can’t afford to be in’. 

Meanwhile, dominant framings of the socio-economic marginalisation of single-parent families as matters of private family law, morals and charity, or actuarial risk offer few insights or solutions. The neoliberal milieu forecloses consideration of root causes of persistent economic gender disparities or stubborn child poverty. Ongoing marginalisation of single-parent families is shrugged off as merely an unfortunate outcome of the market economy. 

Yet there may also be a normative element to the stigmatisation of single-parent families which militates against doing anything about their disadvantaged position. Maintaining single-parent families’ marginalisation also curtails women’s bargaining power within traditional heterosexual marriages. If the best alternative to a negotiated solution (BATNA) within the marital relationship has dire economic and stigmatising consequences for themselves and their children, women’s power in those relationship is inevitably diminished. Thus, it is important to look for an alternative framing, not just for the benefit of single-parent families, but also as a key step in advancing gender equality.  

An alternative approach grounded in Article 10(1) of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

United Nations (UN) human rights law offers an alternative approach. Pacta sunt servanda means that states signing on to UN human rights treaties are taken to intend to fulfil their obligations under them in good faith. A little used provision of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), Article 10(1) states:  

The widest possible protection and assistance should be accorded to the family, which is the natural and fundamental group unit of society, particularly for its establishment and while it is responsible for the care and education of dependent children. 

Customary principles for treaty interpretation, as codified in the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties, require Article 10(1) to be interpreted in accordance with the ordinary meaning of the text, in its context and in light of its object and purpose. The preparatory work of the treaty and the circumstances of its conclusion provide supplementary means of interpretation (Article 32). An analysis of the preparatory work on Article 10(1) reveals that the drafters were convinced that the there was something about family, particularly in relation to its role in nurturing children, that entitled it to protection and assistance as a matter of human rights. Without the benefit of modern developments in neuroscience, feminist theory or the sociology of the family the drafters’ reasoning was inchoate. Subsequent scholarship, however, has confirmed their intuition that there is something about the family—understood as a vulnerable caring unit which can take various forms—that is fundamental to social reproduction and human development. The family’s significance in attending to human vulnerability, including the dependency of children and the consequent derivative dependency of women as their usual primary caregivers, also renders it vulnerable to rights violations. 

This is addressed through Article 10(1) which can be seen as a dye colouring all other substantive provisions of ICESCR. It requires states to ensure, to the maximum extent of their available resources, that families have the widest possible assistance and support in relation to such things as social security (Article 9), an adequate standard of living including food, clothing and housing (Article 11(1)), and the ability to take part in cultural life (Article 15). This mirrors how non-discrimination and equality provisions colour the substantive entirety of a human rights treaty (for example, ICESCR Articles 2(2) and 3).

Immediate obligations to address discrimination and inequality 

The disproportionate poverty, housing and food insecurity, and health disparities experienced by single-parent families throughout the world form prima facie evidence of substantive discrimination. The wash of both dyes—the family group’s right to the maximum possible protection and assistance while responsible for children under Article 10(1), and the right to substantive equality and non-discrimination under Articles 2(2) and 3—combine to create particular obligations on states in relation to single-parent families. Significantly, these are immediate obligations in relation to which states are prohibited from taking retrogressive measures even in times of crisis or austerity.

Responding to potential objections 

Potential objections to this approach include, first, an argument that Article 10(1)’s reference to ‘family’ means only the two-parent opposite-sex marital family. However, this constrained definition was rejected by the provision’s drafters precisely because it excluded those in greatest need of protection, particularly single-parent families.

Second, the idea of group rights might raise objections. Some see the concept as incoherent, arguing that only individuals have the agency necessary to be rightsholders. Others fear that recognising group rights risks sacrificing women and children’s interests to the demands of patriarchal groups. But the phrasing of Article 10(1) is deliberate, enabling interdependence within the vulnerable-caring family to be recognised, and according with the way many societies perceive human identity thus enhancing the UN human rights system’s universality. Importantly, Article 10(1) creates an obligation on the state, not on individual group members who remain protected by the individual rights provisions of ICESCR and other treaties.   

Third, some argue that the UN human rights framework distracts from the grassroots struggles of the most marginalised. But action at the UN level on the rights of other stigmatised and marginalised groups suggests that it can support domestic legal challenges to oppressive norms, influence state action and provide discursive legitimacy to the claims of marginalised people. Similarly, the UN human rights law framework affords a protective canopy under which the seeds of a nascent single-parent families’ rights movement may germinate.