On this International Day of Older Persons , the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues renews its commitment to supporting women and girls in all their diversity with particular attention paid to 2022’s IDOP theme, “The Resilience and Contributions of Older Women.” By 2050, at least 1.2 billion people across the globe will be over the age of 65, and 54% of older persons will be women. Older women, particularly widows, unmarried, childless, and disabled women, face heightened prejudice that leaves them vulnerable to gender-based violence, dispossession of property, extreme social ostracization, and elder abuse. The challenges that older women face are directly linked to the challenges of younger women and girls. However, older women have been innovative in overcoming these unique obstacles, and they remain critical pillars of support in their communities.
A variety of negative stereotypes about older adults has rendered the contributions of older women invisible. Studies have shown that women tend to invest more than 90 percent of their earnings back into their families for nutrition, education, healthcare, and more. Older women support the formal economy by providing at least 4.3 hours of unpaid care work per day, particularly in the absence of formal care infrastructure. A study of sub-Saharan Africa found that co-residence with a grandmother has “almost always positive” results for children and their schooling. Moreover, older women frequently work outside of the home. In many low- and middle-income countries, 1 in 7 older women continue working past retirement age; in Sub-Saharan Africa, this number rises to 1 in 4 older women. Older women also work in nontraditional sectors. For example, 62% of working older women in Asia cite agricultural work as critical to their income, making them particularly vulnerable to issues such as climate change. Despite their continued contributions, older women often still struggle with financial literacy and are less likely to receive digital literacy training.
When older women do retire, they tend to have insufficient savings. The added responsibilities of unpaid care work, combined with lower wages, earlier retirement ages, and higher life expectancy typically lead to reduced pension contributions. This significantly reduces quality of life in old age. As older women become dependent on others for care, they are more vulnerable to elder abuse and GBV. Additionally, older women tend to report higher levels of social isolation and experience worse health outcomes as a result of ageism. These struggles frequently go unnoticed. Thus, improved social awareness and stronger legal protections of older women’s human and labor rights are critical to ensure that all older adults can live richer, fuller, meaningful and longer lives.
In the short-term, we can all do more to make the contributions of older women more visible. Organizations that advocate for the rights of older persons, like HelpAge International, have interviewed older women across the globe to share their stories and recognize their accomplishments. By changing the image of older women in the public eye, we can challenge harmful and discriminatory social norms that devalue older persons. Older women have been and continue to be ready and able to speak out for themselves; all we must do is start listening.
In the long-term, all older adults, and older women in particular, need stronger legal protections. The international community should consider either reexamining, or in some cases, newly introducing anti-age discrimination laws and explicitly defined protections for older adults. The UN’s Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of all Human Rights by Older Persons cites the ageism and age discrimination exacerbated by the pandemic as a violation of human rights. Of the nine treaty bodies of UN conventions, none focus solely on the rights of older adults. Such gaps are particularly concerning given the incidences of GBV that older women experience.
While S/GWI is pleased to celebrate UNIDOP 2022, we recognize that women and girls in all their diversity should be celebrated every day of the year. As we continue our advocacy for women and girls, we will ensure that older women are included in the implementation of the U.S. National Strategy on Gender Equity and Equality and the Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment, and broader foreign policy priorities. The U.S. government will continue working with its partners, both foreign and domestic, to encourage all countries to join us in taking steps to improve women’s access to critical areas like economic security, care infrastructure, and education that will enable older women to continue contributing to their communities with their time, knowledge, and improved resources. Will you join us?
Eugenia Gabrielle Agobe is a USFSIP Intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues on the Women’s Economic Empowerment Team. She is excited to graduate from Southwestern University in 2023 and hopes to someday return to S/GWI as an advocate for women and girls in all their diversity.