The 2014 United Nations World Elder Abuse Awareness Day on June 15th is a time to reflect on the tragic consequences of financial exploitation of older people. We should also be aware of another form of financial abuse against women: structural factors that lead to poverty experienced by the world’s older women. The UN WEAAD is intended to remind us that leading a life of dignity free of abuse and violence is a human right of all older people. Poverty is a form of violence that must be eradicated for all, especially older women.
Looking beyond the 2014 WEAAD to the Post-2015 development agenda, we should remember that older women are more likely to struggle with poverty than other age cohorts. Women in older age are more likely than men to experience both absolute and relative poverty, as well as social exclusion, according to the United Nations. Older women and poverty are connected for many structural reasons and are affected in different ways by marital status, age in life course, race, ethnicity, linguistic background, ability, sexual orientation, citizenship and caste and class. Women who live alone are more likely to live in poverty than women who are married or live with extended families.
Women live longer than men in old age; however, women enjoy few other advantages over men as they age. Starting from birth, women have less status, less access to education, less choice in marriage and childbearing, less access to paid work and employment in the formal economy, and are less likely to inherit property, more likely to be widowed, and more apt to be disadvantaged by harmful traditional practices. Women are more likely than men to be unpaid caregivers of children and grandchildren, spouses and other relatives, and in turn less likely to be able to count on their spouses for care in old age.
The impact of gender differences and inequalities in education and employment opportunities increases through every stage of an individual’s life, hitting hardest in old age, and as a result older women are more likely to be poor in old age in both developed and developing countries. For example, among women living in the USA age 65 years and older, extreme poverty rate rose 18% between 2000 and 2012. Women in developing countries who work in the informal economy can find themselves without income security as they age.
While many older adults in both developed and developing countries remain in the paid workforce, eventually the demands of the jobs they perform may exceed their ability to perform needed tasks. In developed countries social security and pension schemes along with savings replace earned income for many older workers and in both developed and developing countries families may provide needed economic support for older members. However, there are systemic differences in the outcomes that men and women achieve in the labor market and in retirement: this is known as the gender gap.
Older women experience distinct vulnerabilities in income security. Women experience structural exclusion in societies that perceive them as inferior and subordinate to men, which is to say most societies in the world. In developing and developed countries alike, older women tend to experience a higher rate of poverty than older men, in some countries even reaching more than triple men’s levels. Social exclusion of women in some societies is related to several factors including marital, health and employment status. In addition to various sources of income in older age that can affect income security, geographic region also influences older women’s vulnerability to inadequate income security. Older women’s sources of and gaps in income security differ by the world’s regions.
In developed countries like Canada and the USA, women still earn about 73% of what men earn in a year. Women are paid low wages for “women’s work”, work that they are expected to do for free such as caring for and teaching children, nursing the sick, preparing food, cleaning, and serving others. While social security and pension systems exist, older women pay a price for interrupted work histories to provide unpaid care for children, spouses and older relatives. In many developing countries the aging population is still considered to be the responsibility of individual family members. However, some countries like China are experiencing rapid ageing, and are beginning to reconsider this traditional and informal social security plan for older adults by experimenting with larger scale social security provisions.
We are reminded during the 2014 WEAAD that ageing of the world’s population brings challenges and opportunities. Both interpersonal and structural vulnerabilities make older women at risk of neglect, abuse and violence, including poverty. Opportunities for innovative social protection programs also exist. These can lead to positive social change that promotes human rights for all older people, including older women.
About the authors
Patricia Brownell, PhD, is Associate Professor Emerita of Social Service at Fordham University. Dr. Brownell represents the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) and the International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) at the United Nations, New York, and is an active member of the NGO Committee on Ageing Sub-Committee on Older Women and Elder Abuse. She also serves as Vice President of the National Committee for the Prevention of Elder Abuse, and recently published a co-edited book on ageism in the work place with Dr. James Kelly, President of Menlo College. Most recently she served as consultant to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA) for an Expert Group Meeting on Neglect, Abuse and Violence Against Older Women.
Susan Somers has served as Secretary General of the International Network on the Prevention of Elder Abuse (INPEA) since 2003. Her focus is training and consulting in the area of human rights to end abuse, neglect and violence against vulnerable older persons; prevention of cultural and traditional harmful practices; and mental health issues of older persons. She participated in the development and delivery of a national caregiver training program co-sponsored by the Nepal Ministry of Women, Children and Social Welfare, and the National Network of Senior Citizens Organizations of Nepal. Susan is working together with other International NGO’s to promote a new UN Convention on the Human Rights of Older Persons.