In September we witnessed the launch of the most ambitious universal effort since the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development was adopted with 17 global goals (SDGs) for a more sustainable, equitable world. There are gender-equality targets throughout the agenda as well as Goal 5, which specifically focuses on gender equality and women’s empowerment.
The goals are deliberately universal and inclusive, explicitly covering “all ages.” It is important, however, that we recognize—and differentiate between—the challenges faced by women at different stages of their lives. Over the first half of the current century, the global population ages 60 years and older is projected to double, reaching 2 billion by 2050. Women will continue to make up a larger share of this population and will outlive men in nearly all countries. In the developed world, women outlive men by a margin of 4 to 10 years; in the developing world, 58 percent of older people are women.
Although life expectancy is higher for women, many are unable to enjoy their later years because they struggle to meet their basic needs. A lifetime of inequalities has led to older women experiencing some of the world’s lowest literacy rates. Many older women suffer significant health inequities, enjoy fewer human rights, and have less financial security, with fewer savings and assets to support an adequate standard of living in older age.
Gender, aging, and poverty are interrelated. Throughout a woman’s lifetime, her socioeconomic status is rooted in a division of labor that assumes her primary involvement in society to be in reproductive labor, unpaid household work, and caregiving. This perpetuates unequal power relations in the home and means that women earn less and save less for their elderly years. The cumulative effects of this disparity across a woman’s life render her particularly vulnerable to poverty, discrimination, violence, and marginalization in old age. Globally, only about half of people above the retirement age enjoy access to a pension. In most countries, women are less likely than men to receive one, and where they do, their benefit levels are usually lower than those of their male counterparts. In the United States, female caregivers lose an estimated $324,000 in wages and Social Security benefits as a result of uncompensated caregiving. Cumulatively, the total estimated aggregate of lost wages, pension, and Social Security benefits for these caregivers is nearly $3 trillion.1
This “care burden” is currently one of the most serious restrictions faced by women globally. An estimated 66 percent of caregivers are female, and they spend 50 percent more time providing care than do male caregivers. In addition, caregiving needs have become multigenerational, meaning that it is not just children but parents who need care later in life. By 2050, the world will have almost 400 million people who are 80 years or older, making it the first time in history that the majority of middle-aged adults will have living parents, according to the World Health Organization.
Uncompensated caregiving activities often restrict women’s mobility, educational attainment, and skills development, which in turn limit their employment and earning opportunities. When women actively participate in the labor market, many have no option but to take low-wage jobs, or they are relegated to part-time employment with few benefits and little security.
In addition to these economic inequalities, many political, legal, and health care structures have a detrimental impact on the financial security and well-being of older women. In some countries, inheritance laws and practices discriminate against women, so that daughters inherit half as much as their brothers, and mothers less than their children. Widows can be faced with social exclusion, have no rights, and lack social protection. In societies where a woman’s identity and economic worth are seen as inextricably tied to those of her husband, the experience of domestic violence and neglect can continue even once women become widows.
There is a critical need to address violence against older women. Yet, for many developing countries, data on violence against women are measured only for women of reproductive age: 15 to 49 years. This gap in data collection by the Demographic and Health Surveys reinforces the stereotype of women’s value being linked to reproductive function. It is therefore important to introduce ways to measure violence beyond this age group in order to ensure that all women are counted and that the appropriate responses are developed.
The number of older persons in need of long-term care is expected to grow significantly in all countries. Studies reveal that, globally, the majority of countries do not provide any long-term care protection. More than 48 percent of the world’s population lacks coverage by national health care legislation. Most of these people are older women, which is a particularly concerning fact given that nearly half of women over 75 years of age are living alone.
If not addressed, the feminization of aging has the potential to become one of the biggest challenges to gender equality of this century; therefore, these issues need targeted action by governments and international organizations.
The first step that can be taken to support older women is recognizing unpaid care work. This means enacting policies to extend social protection, especially social pensions, to everyone who does not qualify for a contributory pension—whether because they have worked in the informal economy or had interrupted histories of paid work as a result of their care obligations. Governments must also support unpaid care work through better public services and investments in basic infrastructure.
We also need social policies designed specifically with rights for women—of all ages—in mind, as well as macroeconomic policies that create stable economies and support the realization of human rights. We need to provide child allowances to support families as well as noncontributory pensions to ensure women’s income security in old age.2 In the United States, there is a need to realize the vision of the Elder Justice Act, part of the Affordable Care Act, to protect seniors from those seeking to take advantage of them.
We need to amend laws that discriminate against women with regard to property and inheritance rights; create for older women employment opportunities as well as adequate employment benefits; and support paid family care leave. We need to educate health care providers to address the specific needs of elderly women, provide mental health services that target older women, provide long-term care coverage for women, and ensure that we include older women in programs to prevent gender-based violence.
Finally, we need to fully implement the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development in order to tackle the root causes that lead to old-age discrimination, through
- Ending extreme poverty;
- Extending social protection to all;
- Ensuring inclusive and equitable quality education;
- Promoting sustainable economic growth;
- Providing full and productive employment for all;
- Making cities and public spaces safe for women; and
- Promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.
The treatment of older women is a priority issue that affects us all and might serve as an indicator of our success in living out the aspirations of the new agenda. The goal and promise of the SDGs are a remarkable opportunity for our global community to work together, recognizing the changing demographics and taking action to create conditions in which all women will thrive. We at UN Women are committed to help create this reality.
1. MetLife, The MetLife Study of Caregiving Costs to Caregivers, (2011), retrieved January 2015 from http://www.caregiving.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/06/mmi-caregiving-costs-working-caregivers.pdf
2. Progress of the World’s Women 2015 – 2016. UN Women - http://progress.unwomen.org/en/2015/
about the author
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka is United Nations Under-Secretary-General and Executive Director of UN Women. She was sworn into office on 19 August 2013 and brings a wealth of experience and expertise to this position, having devoted her career to issues of human rights, equality and social justice. Ms. Mlambo-Ngcuka has worked in government and civil society, and with the private sector, and was actively involved in the struggle to end apartheid in her home country of South Africa.