Jamaican Research: Caribbean Family Diversity – Part 2

Jamaican couple in bed

The Factors responsible for such Family Diversity

Family Forms

Just as there are different functions of a Caribbean family unit so too is there various forms of the family, expanding across all countries, nations, cultures and ethnic groups.  There are seven basic types of families in the world: Nuclear – parents and one or more children; Single Parent – one parent and a child or children; Extended – When a nuclear or single parent family live with any extended family; Blended – A nuclear family in which one or both of the parents have had a previous marriage, and possibly children from that marriage; Adoptive- May be nuclear, single parent, or blended.  The child is not blood related to the parent, but has been adopted legally; Foster – Can be nuclear, single parent, or blended. The child may stay with the family for an extended period through special government agencies; Other Types – Any group that does not consist of parent and children. An example is that of a newly married couple (http://www.hhs.wash.k12.ut.us/department/health/masters/ch5l1/type.htm ).

Caribbean Family Forms

The family, in all its variety of forms, is the pivotal institution in any society. As the Family Code of the Caribbean asserts, “the family … is the elementary cell of society, and as such, contributes to its development and plays an important role in the upbringing of the new generations” (http://www.sdnp.org.gy/nds/chapter26.html). In the Caribbean there are variations to the family forms found in other societies.


Nuclear family is a household consisting of two married, heterosexual parents and their legal children (Wikipedia, 2005). Also according to Mehrotra (2005), the nuclear family is the most conventional form of family in the western hemisphere. Bonds of marriage, and, consequently, children born in wedlock describe the nuclear family. However, recent years have witnessed an evolution in the form — although not the function — of families that will require a reconsideration of both existing values and legislation. Two kinds of families that were considered “unconventional” in the past have become more common: single-parent families headed by women and families established on the basis of de facto unions.

Matrifocal family

Matrifocal family is also referred to as a single parent family. It consists of a mother and her children(Wikipedia, 2005). An average of 35% of all households in the Caribbean are headed by women. The proportions of female-headed households can reach as high as 44% in Barbados and 42% in Antigua and Barbuda. Furthermore, 54% of all separated or divorced women become female heads of households. In these households, averages of 3 to 5 children depend on the mother. Moreover, the proportion of female-headed households in the Caribbean is rising (Mehrotra, 2005). The table below gives the statistics for matrifocal households and their family size.

Households Headed by Women and Family Size (1990)

Country Average Household Size Share of Households headed by Women
Antigua and BarbudaBahamasBarbadosBelizeCubaDominican RepublicDominicaGuyana



Trinidad and Tobago








* Data refer to a year between 1980 and 1984.

Source: United Nations (1995). The World’s Women 1995: Trends and Statistics. New York: United Nations Publication, p. 30.

Common Law

It is well known that in the Caribbean non-legal unions are common, though it is often suggested that these unions are quite different from legal marriage in terms of the relationships they generate (Smith, 1973). This Caribbean family form is so called because this occurred in Britain. It was a common practise hence the name common law (Chevannes, 2005).

Families established on the basis of common law marriage — also called de facto unions — have also been considered as “unconventional”. However, they do constitute a significant proportion of all consensual unions between men and women. While the stable union of the couple is not legally registered or sanctioned, it generally does reflect the same level of commitment and responsibility as a legal marriage (Mehrotra, 2005). The table below displays the percentage of men and women in common law relationships in the 1980’s, in both Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Undoubtedly the figure has risen significantly since then.

Percentage of Women and Men aged 25-44 in Common Law Marriages

Country Year Women Men
CubaDominican Republic 19811981 2628 2727

Source: Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales (1993). Mujeres Latinoamericanas en Cifras. Madrid: Ministerio de Asuntos Sociales y FLACSO.


Extended family is a term with several distinct meanings; it is used synonymously with consanguinal family.consanguineal family consists of a mother and her children, and other people — usually the family of the mother. This kind of Caribbean family is common where mothers do not have the resources to rear their children on their own. Consanguineal families commonly consist of a husband and wife, their children and other members of the husband’s family;

Visiting Union

Men and women engage in love affairs while they are still in their parents’ homes (Smith, 1973). If children result they may develop into visiting union were the two individuals live in separate residence, while the child stays with its mother. According to Stewart (2002), at the 4th Caribbean Early Childhood Development Conference in Guyana visiting unions make up about 25% of mating relationships in the Caribbean, (Between 19% and 34% in four different samples of men in Jamaica) and are more prevalent among low-income younger men. Mating couples reside with their families of origin and meet at a pre-arranged location to engage to engage in sexual and social relationships. A significant percentage of women in these relationships see themselves as the head of the household.

About one-third of Jamaican women have their first child during adolescence. Women often raise children alone or in extended families; whatever the arrangement, relatives and neighbours are expected to help with childcare in Jamaican communities. Most Jamaican families are headed by women, a tradition that grew out of colonial times, when slaves were not permitted to marry and raise families together. Mothers bear the primary responsibility for supporting children, as well as raising them. Almost half of Jamaican women work outside the home as professionals, in factories or as domestic helpers. Grandmothers also play important roles in families, providing care for their daughters’ and sons’ children, especially if the parents work during the day. Most fathers contribute to the support of their child or children, but often play a smaller role in the development or rearing of their child. (http://www.settlement.org/cp/english/jamaica/family.html ).

According to professor Barry Chevannes, “families are like human oragnisms, they live and they die. It is transitional in its form. The types change at different times, whether due to death or migration of family heads”. Also they may cycle from visiting unions to nuclear to marriage to extended families. This cycle may occur in any order.

More in Part 3….




  1. Barrow, C., (1998). Family in the Caribbean: Themes and Perspectives. Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 1998. p. 1 – 46
  2. Barrow, C., Reddock, R., (2001). Caribbean Sociology: Introductory Readings. Jamaica, Ian Randle Publishers, 2001. p. 418-425.
  3. Booth, R., (2003). Jamaica’s family structure is creating huge societal problems’ – Friday July 4, 2003. Jamaica Gleaner Online. Retrieved on March 5, 2005 from http://www.jamaica-gleaner.com/gleaner/20030704/business/business10.html
  4. Family Life, Retrieved on March 5, 2005 from http://www.settlement.org/cp/english/jamaica/family.html
  5. Guyana National Development Strategy 2001-2010, Chapter 26 – The Family and Its Most Vulnerable Members. Retrieved on March 5, 2005 from http://www.sdnp.org.gy/nds/chapter26.html
  6. Mehrotra, A., (2005). Gender and Family, Retrieved on March 5, 2005 from www.undp.org/rblac/gender/legislation/family.htm
  7. Simey, T.S. (1998). Welfare and Planning in the West Indies
  8.  Smith, R., T., (1973). Family, Household, & Gender: Some Quotes – Matrifocality: The Matrifocal Family. Retrieved on March 5, 2005 from http://instruct.uwo.ca/anthro/211/family.htm
  9. Stewart, M., (2002). 4th Caribbean Early Childhood Development Conference, CHANGING ROLE OF FATHERS Retrieved on March 9, 2005 from http://www.caribecd.org.jm/2002CONF/guyanaconf/PARENTING%20issues/Fatherhood%20Lecture%20-Micheal%20Stewart.htm
  10. Stewart, T., M., (2005). The Family – Family Life Education Project, Ministry of Education, Kingston, Jamaica
  11. Types of Families, Retrieved on March 5, 2005 from http://www.hhs.wash.k12.ut.us/department/health/masters/ch5l1/type.htm


Copyright © 2015, Denise N. Fyffe

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