To ensure all women can age well, we must take on the blatant ageism and sexism that holds us all back.
A United Nations International Day of Older Persons panel focused on “The Resilience and Contributions of Older Women” stressed the importance of recognizing the vital contributions of older women.
For far too long older women have been invisible—have not been in the "room where it happens"—and the panel discussion illustrated it’s time to make a change.
By any measure you can think of, older women fare worse than men everywhere in the world. They face financial insecurity, do most of the unpaid caregiving and household work, don’t have equitable access to health care, and are denied fundamental rights and freedoms.
This week, I had the honor of moderating a panel at the United Nations International Day of Older Persons focused on “The Resilience and Contributions of Older Women.”
Given the struggles we see older women face every day in our work at the National Council on Aging, it’s important to elevate aging as a women’s issue and aging well as a social justice issue.
I would like to share a few highlights from our session that speak to the importance of recognizing the vital contributions of older women and ensuring the inclusion of their voices, perspectives, and needs in the design of policies, especially those responsive to local, national, and global trends and catastrophes.
Women's rights are human rights
During our discussion, Claudia Mahler, Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons at the United Nations, pointed out that women face disadvantages in their access to jobs and the pension system. The gender pay gap, interrupted employment due to caregiving, and a higher prevalence of part-time and informal work all lead to low or no pensions. Women represent 65% of those who receive no pension. Caregiver credits would go a long way toward alleviating this deep disadvantage, but we also need to hear what older women have to say and value their substantial contributions.
Older women face a particular risk of vulnerability to climate impacts and have higher rates of mortality from extreme heat events, as Lorena Aguilar, Executive Director of the Kaschak Institute for Social Justice for Women and Girls at Binghamton University, explained. The window of opportunity to help those most impacted is small and closing. Climate change has affected more populations with less capacity to adapt, and gender inequalities hinder sustainable development.
Again, we must include older women’s voices in decisions on how to build resilience in the face of climate change.
Despite these challenges, older women have shown they are resilient and able to bounce back. But, as Alana Officer, Head of Demographic Change & Healthy Aging at the World Health Organization, said, we must stop expecting them to overcome obstacles because of gaps in policy and systems, because of lack of gender equity and, generally, being ignored. We need to build communities that are better places in which to grow older.
Dismantle the systems that force resilience
Older women bear the brunt of multiple forms of discrimination, from lack of access to pensions to inadequate health care that does not address all their needs. This while they live longer than men. They’re also at the crux of caregiving issues. They need both long-term care because of unaddressed health issues and their longevity, while also being affected by their caregiving responsibilities.
For the regional perspective, Bilquis Tahira, Executive Director of the Shirakat Partnership for Development in Pakistan, delved into how the International Monetary Fund's agenda based on privatization, deregulation, curtailing subsidies, and limiting social sector spending harmed women’s economic prospects. While IMF was supposed to reduce poverty, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. How are women supposed to thrive in such a context, especially those in poor households? That’s why we need an economic theory that is gender-just and poor-friendly.
Carole Osero-Ageng'o, Global Initiatives Lead with the Africa Region at HelpAge International, rounded out the conversation with sobering examples of violence, neglect, and abuse.
Among the horrific examples shared were stories of women with dementia suggested to be witches in certain countries in Africa and stoned, showing the need for education on health issues.
She also shared that rates of elder abuse are expected to increase, translating to serious health, financial, and social consequences to older persons and their communities. Resilience does not defeat repression. Carole poignantly suggested we need to dismantle the very systems that force older women to be resilient in the first place.
Calling for an International Convention on the Rights of Older Persons
As the panelists so aptly highlighted these critical issues, I renew my call for a legally binding International Convention on the Rights of Older Persons to ensure all can age with dignity. A dedicated human rights framework for older adults in the form of a Convention would go a long way in ensuring meaningful participation of all older adults and, in particular, older women. For far too long older women have been invisible, have not been in the "room where it happens," and the panel discussion illustrated it’s time to make a change.
At the National Council on Aging, we believe aging well should be a right, not a privilege. To ensure all women can age well, we must take on the blatant ageism and sexism that holds us all back. It’s time to put older women at the center, not the sidelines, of policy development. Our grandmothers deserve better. Our mothers deserve better. Our daughters deserve better. We all do.