The fantasy of the nuclear family is holding us back

Christine Banlog, 64, is raising her three grandchildren in Nyalla, an area in Douala, Cameroon.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is United Nations under-secretary-general and executive director at UN Women. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion at CNN.

(CNN)Cameroonian Christine Banlog, 64, has been raising her three grandchildren by herself since her daughter's death in 2011. Banlog's day starts with the early rush to buy wholesale produce that she can sell in the local market. When the market closes at 3 p.m., Banlog doesn't stop.

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka
She sets up a small stand near her home to sell whatever's left. "I use the income to pay school fees, even though it's very difficult. Money is not enough," she says. At the end of every long day, Banlog goes home to cook dinner.
    Banlog's family configuration is not the conventional one that we so often see in the media and movies -- a husband, his wife and children. It's not the standard "nuclear" model that many decision-makers have in mind when they are formulating policies to support family life. But look around, and you will see that our societies and cultures are made up of a spectrum of family forms.
    A new report by UN Women backs this observation up with data. Drawing on global analysis, the report finds that families are diverse across all regions, with nuclear families actually in the minority. The Progress of the World's Women report uses census data to show that only 38% of households are comprised of couples living with their children. A similar proportion -- 27% -- are extended families, like Banlog's.
    The question for decision-makers is therefore less about who is included in a family, and more about what we are doing to ensure that everyone is supported. Banlog, and millions of women like her, are acting as shock absorbers for family units in times of adversity. But womens' resources are not infinitely elastic, and families aren't always self-sufficient. They need supportive communities, markets and well targeted government policies in order to flourish.

    Expanding female employment opportunities

    Social protection and public services can play a critical role in buffering families against hardship and advancing prosperity and gender equality. According to our report, across the world, marriage and childbearing currently depress women's employment rates, while they have the opposite effect on men. Policies are needed that allow more mothers to stay in employment, such as maternity and parental leave, and policies to trigger equal sharing of unpaid care and domestic work within families.
    Along with paid leave and efforts to redistribute care in the home, we need explicitly written legislation to create more jobs in the care sector and to promote early child development by providing accessible, affordable and quality education and care for children under five.
    This is a win-win tactic for counties. Calculations for my own country, South Africa, suggest that universalizing quality childcare services for children under the age of five could create more than 2 million new jobs and, should most of these jobs go to women, an increase of up to 10 percentage points in the female employment rate.

    Updating divorce and inheritance laws

    Families can be contradictory spaces for women: they are places of love, nurturing and solidarity, as well as where women are most likely to experience violence and discrimination. Family laws have a critical bearing on women's equal rights within marriage and the strength of any fallback position, yet they remain the area of law that is most likely to discriminate against women in ways that limit their ability to move on. For example, in 13% of countries, women are still denied equal rights to confer their nationality on their children.