Twenty years ago this September, I joined with thousands of women and men from around the world to participate in the 4th UN World Conference on Women in Beijing. The goal was to advance women’s progress and ensure their rights to education, health care, full economic and political participation and freedom from violence. I accompanied then-First Lady of the United States, Hillary Clinton and will never forget the audience’s reaction to her speech in the cavernous conference center when she said for the world to hear, “Human rights are women’s rights and women’s rights are human rights.” The room, filled with young and old, and from all sectors of society, erupted in thunderous applause, as she emphasized “it is no longer acceptable to discuss women’s rights as separate from human rights” and that women will “never gain full dignity until their human rights are respected and protected.”
Twenty years later, we have made progress on the Platform for Action, which was adopted by 189 countries in Beijing. Since then, women have become a powerful demographic that cannot be ignored and today, there is a growing evidence-based case that investing in women is both the right thing to do and the smart and strategic thing to do.
Indeed, if we look just at women as an economic force, we see that they control 75% of all purchasing decisions in the US and 64% globally. Booz Allen estimated that raising female employment to male levels will have a stunning impact on economic growth, increasing GDP by 5% in the US, 9% in Japan, 12% in the UAE and a whopping 34% in Egypt. Research shows that advancing women yields a double dividend as women plow their incomes back in to their families and communities, driving illiteracy and mortality rates down and GDP up. During the last three decades in the US, we have seen the meteoric rise of older women’s participation in the labor force. According to the US Department of Labor, among 55- to 64-year-olds, women’s rate of labor force participation increased from 41.3% in 1980 to 59.4% in 2012, and is expected to reach 66.6% by 2020.
For all the progress women have made and continue to make, the agenda remains unfinished. Too many women still live on the outskirts of opportunity, too many are still kept from decision-making, whether in Parliaments, boardrooms or at the tables where peace agreements are negotiated, and too many are still targets of violence which continues to be a global scourge.
Older women are too often left out of this global agenda. Yet the number of older persons is growing faster than any other age group and by 2050, 2 billion people will be over the age of 60, making up 21% of the world’s population, with the majority being women. There will be over 1 billion women aged 60 and over by 2050.
We must address Beijing’s unfinished agenda as it pertains to older women. Older women confront age discrimination, are vulnerable to abuse, suffer from political and economic disempowerment and often are among the poorest members of our society.
At the same time, we must recognize and tap the wisdom, experience and talent of older women for the betterment of our societies and economies, particularly in these challenging times. Older women are grandmothers and child-care providers. They are the glue that holds together families and communities around the word. Many are small business owners and educators; some are CEOs and Presidents. The diverse experiences and issues of this dynamic community must be recognized in the women’s empowerment and global development agenda.
2015 also marks 15 years since the adoption of the Millennium
Development Goals (MDGs) when the international community committed to end extreme poverty in 15 years. While much progress has been made, an ambitious post-2015 agenda is being debated to address what has been achieved, what has not yet realized as well as new challenges that have emerged since 2000.
As we look beyond the MDGs, a new set of priorities – the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – is being drafted with additional goals such as economic growth, environmental sustainability and social justice. I trust as the SDGs are being debated, the international community will acknowledge that women’s empowerment and gender equality are an important end in themselves and key to the realization of all the goals. And that means women of all ages. We must ensure that older women’s rights are protected and that their contributions to society are recognized.
As Ambassador for Global Women’s Issues, I saw the power of partnerships and worked to catalyze them. One of the strongest collaborations I see right now is between older women and youth: the intergenerational partnership.
On February 5, I will be speaking at the UN with Lloyd Russell-Moyle, a representative of the international youth movement. Our conversation will focus on how the intergenerational bond between older persons and youth can take on the challenges confronting the world – from climate change and caregiving to jobs creation and peace. This untapped partnership is one the will yield strong dividends for the betterment of the world.
Older women are keeping families together in the midst of conflict. They are caring for children who’ve lost parents to HIV/AIDS. They are electrifying rural villages so children can study at night. They are providing skills to and mentoring young people in search of jobs. This bond must be nurtured and supported. I applaud AARP’s leadership in advancing this global intergenerational conversation, which will help highlight the important contributions of older women around the world.