The Traditional Caribbean Family Essay
The Traditional Caribbean Family
This paper is about the traditional Caribbean family, providing a description of the typical family characteristics representative of the peoples in the region. In order to understand the traditional Caribbean family, it is necessary to study their culture, their family structure and their economic situation. In this manner, the concept of family is placed in its proper social context.
The Caribbean is composed of numerous island countries. These nations underwent the same historical process of colonization by the Dutch, English, French and Spanish and are undergoing the same process of contemporary globalization. This experience has in some degree homogenized the characteristics of peoples in the region (i.e. in terms of religion) but failed to erase the diversity in culture.
Structure and Patterns of the Caribbean Family
The concept of family in the Caribbean is influenced by the interplay of factors relating to the historical experience of slavery and religion as well as current ethnicity, economic conditions and environmental settings (i.e. rural or urban). We see the Caribbean today as composed of the African-Caribbeans, Indian-Caribbeans, Caribbeans of European descent and others.
African-Caribbeans number about 80 percent of the whole population in the islands with their forebears settling mainly in Jamaica, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago and Guyana as slaves that the colonizers brought with them. For purposes of this paper, the focus will be on this ethnic group because they are the majority. References to other groups may also be made as necessary.
Studies show that there is no single type of family that exists in the region. The main forms of families are basically seen with regards to the status of union adopted; 1). married, 2). common law, 3). visiting unions (concubinage) and 4). single (unmarried or divorced) (Innerarity, 2000, p.59). It is generally construed that families based on marriage or adhering to the Western nuclear family model is a practice common among the minority affluent and middle class Caribbeans.
The last three types are customary among those in the lower social classes (St. Bernard, 2003, p.5). Most of the African-Caribbeans remain in economically depressed situations. Families as they near the poverty line or are below it generally become bigger in size and may include an elderly person(usually female) in an extended family setting (St. Bernard, 2003, p.7).
Visiting unions and single parent families are usually headed by females who have full responsibility for the home. There is minimal or a total absence of a father figures in the home. Women may raise their children alone or live with their parents for the added social support system. In the 1980’s, it was estimated that majority of African-Caribbean families (30-50%) were matrifocal (Brown, 2002 and Caribbean Families, 2008). It is perceived that females maintain visiting union relationships due to economic consideration.
Common law families are 2 parent households where both cultural factors (social acceptance) and economic constraints discourage them from formalizing their union (Innerarity, 2000, p.61). Families based on marriage, on the other hand, also tend to have 2-parent households and dominated by males as they are the primary economic earners, though women also participate in the labor force nowadays.
Coming to the islands from East Asia as indentured laborers in post-slavery Caribean, the Indian-Caribbeans and Chinese-Caribbeans, in contrast, still generally regard the marriage-based nuclear family as the acceptable form of family (Innerarity, 2000, p.62). Divorce is discouraged and close, long-lasting family ties establish cohesion. Non-formal and impermanent relationships are not socially accepted.
Patterns of family in Afro-Caribbean families include fathers who are perennially absent and common law unions that usually end in separations (Caribbean Families, 2008). Families dominated by grandmothers are also common because their single parent female daughters have to go and work within their locales. The migration of parents or their entering into relationships with other partners, also gave rise to children living with other relatives, where reunification of the family is very difficult.
Female elderly usually live with daughters and do so because of the attachment with their children developed over years of involvement in child care and rearing. Trends since the 90’s decade however, show a decrease in multigenerational households and an increase in elderly people living alone (St. Bernard, 2003, p.11). The latter are usually males and become isolated as a result of their non-involvement in domestic work regarding children.
Afro-Caribbean males are generally characterized by their inability to maintain monogamous relationships and accept responsibility for their nuclear family which studies show as the cultural remnants of their African or slave heritage (Innerarity, 2000, p.59-60 and Barrows, 1998, pp.3-11). This behavior is socialized in childhood as what the determinant of being a man.
Family Size and Number of Siblings
The absence of current surveys pertaining to family size covering the whole region makes it difficult to ascertain the average family size in the Caribbean and so the data in this section is based on what is available. In the 1990’s, fertility levels in the Caribbean was an average of 3-4 live births per woman (St. Bernard, 2003, p.7). Exceptions are made for Haiti and Grenada where the fertility rate is more than 4 births per woman.
In 2001, a survey in Jamaica, an Afro-Caribbean populated country, revealed that the richest families had an average size of 2.26 while the poorest had a mean size of 5.23 (St. Bernard, 2003, p. 10). This puts the national average to 3.4, a significant decrease from 3.9 in 1992.
Family Roles and the Extended Family
In two-parent nuclear families (married or common law), the mother and father generally adhere to the traditional male-female roles, although the former is a more stable structure as an institution. The father is the breadwinner while the mother accomplishes child care and other domestic work. Local women’s movements have contributed to a trend of shared domestic work between husbands and wives, especially with the latter also having careers of their own.
Afro-Caribbean, lower income and single-parent households are a case of family instability at work. Women who mother and also father their children struggle to meet the basic survival levels so that adequate attention is not given to the children in terms of physical care, attention, guidance and nurturing. Hence, children from these families have greater chances to be involved in juvenile delinquency (Innerarity, 2003, pp. 65-66). This nuclear single parent family is especially marked in urban areas where kinship systems are absent.
In economic situations such as this, the extended family can play a crucial role towards establishing a sense of stability and this is a most notable practice in rural communities (Innerarity, 2001, p.65). Grandparents act as a safety net for women who are single parents. Sometimes, they carry the whole burden of raising the children when the mothers migrate to other countries in search for more lucrative economic opportunities.
Culture in the Caribbean
Education and religion influence family life in the Caribbean. These institutions in part determine one’s view of the ideal family. They also factor in child rearing practices, values-formation and the establishment of standards for everyday life.
In a study of tertiary education institutions in Trinidad and Tobago, St. Lucia, Jamaica, Barbados and the Bahamas by Chipman-Johnson and Vanderpool (2004), female enrolment has increased significantly within the past 25 years (p.16). Some colleges present a female to male enrolment ratio of 2:1 to as high as 4:1 (p.16).
Aside from participation in the labor marker, women’s education is also seen as the cause for the declining fertility and therefore family size in the region (St. Bernard, 2003, p.9). With regards to family formation, women who hold a secondary and tertiary level education tend to bear children at a later age than those who have no education.
This is because they tend to see children in terms of costs and so limit their number of births. Women who are educated also tend to push their children to strive academically and to adopt higher standards of child care. The socialization of children concerns the acquisition of higher level skills and attitudes for future professional employment.
On the contrary, this points to us the issue of male underperformance and male marginalization in the economy and family. Because marriage and fathering roles require a certain degree of economic stability, insubstantial educational achievements by men render them unable to fulfill the economic obligations of fatherhood. As such they are denied other family roles.
Reddock (2004) attributes this phenomenon to the socialization of males as the privileged gender (pp. 137-166). Young girls are kept inside the house, taught to do housework with less time for play and disciplined more often. Boys, on the other hand, are allowed longer hours for themselves out of the house, less supervised, do not engage much in domestic work but in developing physical prowess. This does not prepare them for the confined, stringent and intellectually competitive school environment.
There are diverse religions in the Caribbean dominance is still claimed by Roman Catholicism followed by Protestantism and Hinduism. Afro-Caribbeans are mostly Catholics while Indian-Caribbeans largely practice Hinduism. The preponderance of common law unions and the existence of visiting unions as well, have caused much debate among the Roman Catholic clergy on how to approach it in an effective and appropriate manner.
These issues show the glaring contradictions between actual practices and church teachings. The women are usually morally caught in a bind over the concept of “living in sin” especially because it is the men who do not wish to be married in the Christian tradition.
The Economic Situation of Caribbean Families
Resources Available for the Caribbean Family
A study of the World Bank (2001) has indicated that the Caribbean is one of the 7 regions of the world where poverty is most rampant. In addition, poverty is higher in rural areas than in the urban areas. Majority of lower income families live without the benefits of basic social services such as water, sanitation, housing or electricity (Innerarity, 2000, p.65). In urban areas, families live together in cramped housing.
Poorer families could not also afford quality education for their children, especially for single mother families with 2 or more dependent children. Health is also another problem where recent surveys show high malnutrition rates among children of the poor. This is because Caribbean states do not provide the necessary support in terms of social services.
In a region largely undeveloped industrially and rely more on seasonal and services-oriented industries such as tourism and agricultural export, the number of employable people far exceeds the number of jobs available. The less skilled poor lose to the higher skilled in the intense competition over these jobs. For single mothers, the triple blow of high unemployment rates, low paying jobs and the added tasks of child care make family life very difficult (Innerarity, 2000, p. 65).
Legal migration is an increasing phenomenon where the U.S. and Canada have forged agreements with Caribbean countries permitting peoples from the latter to migrate to the former as unskilled supplementary workers. This is referred to as the Guest Worker program. The absence of available jobs in the domestic market to accommodate the skilled professionals as well as the desire to improve their standard living has pushed middle class Caribbeans to also migrate legally.
The poorer sections of society who do not have the capacity to migrate legally, do so illegally despite the dangers associated with it. Illegal migration usually causes the disintegration of the family especially with the long physical absence of parents, the irregularity of remittances or the difficulty of communication (St. Bernard, 2003, p. 15).
HIV/AIDS and the Family
The high incidence of HIV/AIDS infections among the lower classes is assumed to be due to poverty – women engage in non-permanent sexual relationships in order to survive. Men dominate in these relationships and may force women to have sexual intercourse without protection. St. Bernard (2003) has identified the problem of rising incidences of this disease and the number of orphaned children, estimate to reach a thousand, due to parents dying of it as a great concern (p.7-8).
The traditional family in the Caribbean is far from our conception of family in the West. Our understanding of the peculiar characteristics and situations of families in the Caribbean comes from looking into the diverging economic, political and cultural conditions in which these families are located. As a result, we now look at the Caribbean family not in terms of the ethnocentrism but in the objective conditions that gave rise to it.
List of References
Barrow, C. (1998). Family in the Caribbean. Markus Weiner Publications
Brown, J. (2002). Gender and family in the Caribbean. Sexual Health Exchange 2002-4. Retrieved 18 March 2008 from http://www.kit.nl/exchange/html/2002- 4_gender_and_family_in_th.asp.
Caribbean Families (2008). Family structure. Retrieved 18 March 2008 from http://family.jrank.org/pages/204/Caribbean-Families-Extended-Family.html
Chipman-Johnson, R. and Vanderpool, J. (2003) Higher education attainment by gender, enrollment and employment in the Anglophone Caribbean. Retrieved 18 March 2009 from http://www.iesalc.unesco.org.ve/programas/GENERO/Educaci%C3 %B3n%20Superior%20y%20G%C3%A9nero%20en%20El%20Caribe.pdf
Innerarity, F.D. (2001) Marriage and family in the Caribbean. World Family Policy Forum
2000, pp. 59-68.
Reddock, R. E. (ed)(2004) Interrogating Caribbean Masculinities: Theoretical and Empirical Analyses. Jamaica: University Press of the West Indies.
St. Bernard, G. (2003) Major trends affecting families in Central America and the Caribbean. The United Nations DSPD and DESA Program on the Family. Retrieved 18 March 2008 from www.un.org/esa/socdev/family/Publications/mtstbernard.pdf.