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Speech by Maud de Boer-Buquicchio
Deputy Secretary General of the Council of Europe
29th Session of the Council of Europe Conference of Ministers
responsible for Family Affairs


Vienna, 16-17 June 2009

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Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen,

This Conference of Ministers responsible for Family Affairs has a long tradition. Although the context in our countries has evolved enormously over the last 50 years, there are some issues that Ministers for Family Affairs have been returning to again and again over the past 28 conferences. These include policies to support families in need, gender equality and reconciliation of family and professional life. Experience shows that the measures taken in these three fields are in constant evolution to respond to social changes.

One scenario, however, would probably not have come to the minds of Family Ministers 50, 40 or 30 years ago: A decrease in birth rates which is so significant, that only a minority of European countries will have stable population growth over the next decades.
Combined with an aging population in Europe, the low birth rates confront governments with several problems. These problems are linked to the balance of tax and social security systems, the availability of a sufficient labour force, and the innovative capacity of national economies.

However, this issue should not only be looked at from an economic point of view. Families are more than suppliers for the labour force or consumer units. Children are much more than statistics, future tax payers, employees and caregivers for their elderly dependants.

Decline in birth rates and the aging population may also have other side effects that we should not underestimate. Such developments may generate tensions and we have to be careful and react to any signals showing an exacerbation of these tensions. I have in mind measures taken by some hotels, cinemas, supermarkets and urban planners to keep children away. This “children not welcome” climate may well have an impact on people’s wish to have children.

The main Council of Europe human rights treaties protect both the family and its individual members. The European Convention on Human Rights guarantees the right to respect for family life. This does not only lay an obligation on our member states to abstain from unjustified interference, but also a positive one to ensure that family life can effectively be enjoyed by its members. The Revised Social Charter declares the family as the fundamental unit of society, and which has the right to social, legal and economic protection to ensure its full development. For the Council of Europe Member States, human rights must underpin all social policies, including family policies.

It is therefore important that we keep in mind the human rights dimension when investigating the root causes of the decline in birth rates and when designing the policies to influence the trend. We should not lose sight of human rights and the child best interest when considering for instance adoption or medically assisted reproduction.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

There are many reasons why people decide to have less or no children at all. Certainly, financial reasons, lack of professional stability and housing problems, and difficulties reconciling work and family life play a major role. It should not be forgotten that every person, man or woman, is free to decide and that there are many personal reasons which cannot or should not be influenced by public policies. Last, but not least, there are other, less evident reasons which are more linked to the perception of the child as a nuisance or as a barrier.

Fifty years of European family policy have shown the importance of sharing data and experiences. That is why the Council of Europe has produced a comprehensive database with comparative information such as the length of parental leaves, the number of days off to care for sick children or the coverage rate of formal childcare across 40 European countries. Based on these data, two expert reports on family policy were prepared and are submitted to this conference as background documents. They shed light on the trends in family policies in the greater Europe today. One of the main conclusions of these reports is that the challenges which family policies have to respond to are becoming increasingly complex.

There is a clear tension, for example, between the objective to create more employment opportunities for mothers and the aim to allow mothers to stay at home to care for their young children. Many member states try to facilitate both and leave this choice to the parents, but scarce resources often force governments to favour either the provision of sufficient child-care facilities or long and well-paid parental leaves.

Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In this, as well as in other areas of family policy, close co-operation and co-ordination between the different government bodies and ministries is crucial. I strongly believe that ministers of family affairs have a major role to play not only on the protection of the family unit but also on the well being of all its members. The way responsibilities are distributed in governments should not be an obstacle to the creation of conditions allowing families and their members to enjoy their rights and fulfil their aspirations.

At your last Conference in Lisbon three years ago, you discussed the crucial issue of positive parenting. Following that discussion, the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe adopted a Recommendation on a policy to support positive parenting. We urged member states to support parents in their upbringing responsibilities, for example through services where parents can learn good parenting skills. The report which is presented to you shows that member States have responded positively and developed a great number of new policies and actions to promote parenting in the best interest of the child. The demand for this kind of support is increasing, hence the success of some reality shows where parents call for an outsider to advice. A new reality show even uses teenagers who are left on their own with infants and small children under TV cameras, for several days so that they learn “parental responsibilities”. This of course raises issues such as child protection, media ethics and state influence of the media. My message to you, Ministers of family affairs, is that you should think of alternative and innovative ways to satisfy the parents’ demand for professional advice and support.

Positive parenting means, of course, non-violent parenting. Children have the same rights as adults to the protection of their physical and psychological integrity. Corporal punishment violates this right. This is why the Council of Europe launched its campaign “Raise your hand against smacking”. Its objective is to eliminate corporal punishment of children through the introduction of a specific ban in all European legislations, through the promotion of the development of positive parenting techniques, and through awareness-raising about children’s rights in general. To date, 20 member states have banned corporal punishment, and 8 more member states are committed to do so in the near future. From here, I want to call upon you as Ministers of Family Affairs, to support this campaign. You can do so also symbolically, by signing the card you have found in your folders.

The Council of Europe is also concerned by the situation of children who do not have the privilege of growing up in a family. As a follow-up to our Recommendation on the rights of children living in residential institutions, a report was prepared providing a detailed overview of the state of implementation of this Recommendation. Our European Convention on the Adoption of Children was recently revised to reflect changes in society and now provides an up-to-date set of rules guaranteeing that national adoptions are carried out in the best possible conditions and with the best interest of the child as their main concern. Even if people who cannot have children may resort to adoption, we have to keep in mind that the primary objective of adoption is to give a family to an individual child, and not the opposite.

Finally, let me draw your attention to our recently adopted Convention on the Protection of Children against Sexual Exploitation and Sexual Abuse . Here again, I count on your support to have this instrument ratified by all your countries and to develop measures that will allow us, in particular, to fight sexual violence within the family.

Excellency, Ladies and Gentlemen,

In your draft communiqué, you rightly call for the promotion of child-friendly and family-friendly societies. I wish to confirm that the Council of Europe stands ready to accept this challenge. We will for instance work on improving the quality of social services for families and children, making them more effective and child-friendly through taking better into account the rights, needs and views of children. Personally, I believe that social services should not become an automatic scapegoat when things go wrong. They need proper support including financial support. Many incidents of child abuse that go unnoticed are not because social services have been incompetent or indifferent, but because they are often understaffed and overworked. Following ground-breaking work of the Council of Europe on gender budgeting, it is now time to reflect upon “child-budgeting” so that children’s rights are effectively mainstreamed in all policy areas.

The work of Ministers responsible for Family Affairs, and the relevant activities in the Council of Europe concern issues which are part of everyday life. People will not notice when we are successful, but they will if we fail. But that, after all is neither surprising nor important. We are not doing this to earn gratitude. But we should always strive to make a positive difference.

Thank you very much.