The current attention given to gender equality and female empowerment, not least its inclusion as a standalone goal in the recently adopted United Nations Sustainable Development Goal framework, is extremely welcome and long overdue. Ending and reversing multiple forms of discrimination against women is not only an essential step from a human rights perspective, but it will also make positive impacts on the wider health, education, and economic status of families and communities.
But how often do we see older women, or even women aged 50 and over, portrayed in the context of this global gender equality agenda? Can anyone argue anything other than hardly ever? Indeed, after a lifetime of gender-based discrimination, older women seem to be suffering the final indignity of being excluded from the movement to bring about the equality they have been denied throughout their lives, this time on account of age discrimination.
There is no excuse for this. Women aged 50 and over already account for 23.6 percent of the world’s female population. Yet, they seem almost entirely invisible within discussions on gender equality in both the developed and the developing world. Development discourse in particular offers little to older women, as does the public imagery associated with programming on gender equality and women’s empowerment in the global south.
Women aged 50 and over are not even being counted. Data sets both confirm and reinforce the exclusion of older women. For example, Demographic and Health Surveys simply stops collecting data on gender-based violence for women at age 49. This is despite documented evidence that women of all ages may be subjected to violence, neglect, and other forms of abuse—some specific to their age—and may be deprived of basic goods and services.
The accumulation of gender-based discrimination over a lifetime, intersecting with discrimination based on old age, can have a devastating effect on older women’s lives in multiple ways.
Let’s take health, for example. Multiple pregnancies and poor support in childbirth, compounded by disadvantage and inequalities in early life (e.g., lack of access to health care, inadequate nutrition and schooling, and lower income levels), contribute to poor health outcomes for many women in low- and middle-income countries. Reproductive health problems, including incontinence and other conditions specifically associated with poor maternal health care or female genital mutilation in childhood, have been shown to continue into advanced age.
But older women face specific health challenges as well. As many more women are living decades beyond menopause, there is an increased risk of hormone-related conditions, such as osteoporosis and associated fracture, while other lifestyle factors increase risk of heart disease and stroke. As HelpAge International has often observed, the diagnosis and management of common noncommunicable diseases like cardiovascular disease, cancer, and diabetes, which disproportionately affect older people, are poor across the developing world, despite population aging which increases the number of people at risk. Women’s longer life expectancy makes this of particular concern to older women.
When it comes to income, older women also tend to pay a financial price for the accumulated impact of gender discrimination. Throughout every stage of life, women represent a disproportionate percentage of the workforce of caregivers and informal sector workers who contribute a vast—yet unacknowledged—amount to their communities, families, and economies. Women are often actually penalized for this role in their social status—a phenomenon referred to as the “care penalty.”
Those women who do work outside the home are likely to earn less than men, a gap that only widens with age. The fact that women often have reduced access to paid work, receive lower wages, and are more likely to work in the informal sector means they have less opportunity to gain any meaningful pension entitlements. Large gender gaps are evident in pension benefits, with the largest gaps for women with children. Women also have less access to land and other assets than men. In India, 60 percent of women have no valuable assets to their name, compared with 30 percent of men.
The likelihood a woman will experience widowhood on account of longer life expectancy is amplified in many developing countries by social norms that dictate marriage at an early age for women. Global population data sets show women clearly outnumber men in every age category after 49. One obvious consequence of this is that older women are significantly less likely than older men to be able to count on their spouses for home-based care in their later years.
Widowhood can further pose a major transitional change for many older women, coupled with financial threats. In many countries and communities, discriminatory laws, policies, and attitudes toward widows can seriously disadvantage women’s access in older age to material, financial, and natural resources.
Violence against women tends not to stop in older age. Instead, it becomes less visible. In Central Asia, older women report very high levels of shame in being subjected to violence by their children, typically characterized by physical and financial abuse. Older women experience rape in conflict settings. Focus groups conducted by HelpAge International have consistently revealed painful and private patterns of abuse, and revealed high levels of mental, financial, and physical abuse in a range of settings.
As stated earlier in this article, data systems that record sexual and physical violence against women are most often limited to the age range of 15-49, perpetuating a long-discredited notion that violence is perpetrated only on women of childbearing age.
Very little data are collected on older women’s gendered experience of abuse, including financial and emotional violence or neglect. This critical information gap conceals patterns of violence against postmenopausal women, resulting in their subsequent exclusion from prevention and rehabilitation policies and programs.
So what needs to be done? Twenty years ago, the 1995 Beijing Declaration at the end of the Fourth World Conference on Women recognized age discrimination as one of the factors contributing to the barriers to women’s empowerment and advancement. The challenges that older women face were referenced in eight places in the declaration under health concerns, reproductive and sexual health issues, laws against gender discrimination in the workplace, and policies and programs on HIV/AIDS, as well as information, programs, and services to help women understand and adapt to the changes associated with aging. In December 2010, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reaffirmed the need to address the concerns and rights of older women with the introduction of General Recommendation 27 on older women and protection of their human rights.
But despite this victory, overall progress is slow. Substantive equality for older women is far from being a reality. Specific examples of this neglect are the following:
• The 2015 analysis of 131 member states’ national implementation reports for the Beijing Declaration 20-year review revealed that only 21 reports (16 percent) made any reference to older women or aging.
• Older women were wholly missing from the debate about the achievements of Millennium Development Goals for women and girls.
While there has been broad acknowledgment across civil society groups that the Sustainable Development Goals framework should be inclusive of older women, the language of the outcome document is less inclusive than the language of the Beijing Declaration 20 years ago, which talked about “women and girls of all ages.” While the SDG framework has been a significant and welcome step forward for older people, on gender we must consider anything less than Beijing essentially regressive.
HelpAge International welcomes the strong focus on women and girls as a global development priority, but we believe older women fall within an unwitting but serious blind spot. We therefore want to see much higher visibility of older women in national and global data sets, and much more systematic efforts to ensure their inclusion in development planning and programs.
The three priorities that global and national policy makers must focus on are as follows:
1. Commitment to and investment in collection, analysis, and publication of data on women beyond reproductive age
2. Building the evidence base around the specific nature and prevalence of violence, discrimination, and other abuses that millions of women currently experience in later life
3. Age-inclusive development and humanitarian planning, policies, and programs supporting and promoting older women’s health and economic, social, and political empowerment, and reducing abuse of older people.
Quick and concrete progress across these three priorities should not be difficult. The most important first step is recognition and understanding that age discrimination, like gender discrimination, is widespread, deep-rooted, and harmful.
HelpAge International would love nothing more than to see these two forms of discrimination tackled together, so that we can all work together to achieve equality for women of all ages. about the author
Toby Porter is the chief executive of HelpAge International, a global network of organizations working to help older women and men claim their rights, challenge discrimination, and overcome poverty in older age. In June 2014, he joined the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Aging for 2014-16, and represented HelpAge International at the 2014 and 2015 annual meetings of the World Economic Forum in Davos.