30 September 2016

The strange case of women who disappear at age 49

October 1st – International Day of Older Persons.

Let’s be honest, growing older is hard. And it is particularly hard for women who are least visible at this stage of life.

Nearly 25% of the world’s women are age 50 and older and they account for more than half of the population 60 and older. Yet we know very little about what happens to them after age 49: their sexual health, economic activity or experiences of violence. And why is that? Globally comparable data sets collect data only from women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years-old). After that, they become pretty much invisible.

And this invisibility can be dangerous, especially when it hides abuse and violence.

Different cultures around the world have different attitudes around aging, which have a huge effect on our experiences. Several cultures still celebrate and revere their elders (e.g. the Chinese, Korean, Greeks or Native Americans). But in most Western societies, old age is commonly seen as a negative, a burden, relegated behind closed doors, out of the way of our fast paced world.

In this context, older women become vulnerable to acts of violence from a wider range of perpetrators, including their spouses, family members and caregivers. And without measuring this violence as a distinct development challenge, we cannot understand its full magnitude.

A recent study from the European Union found that 28% of women 60 years of age and older reported experiencing some form of abuse in the previous year. As is the case with younger women, the most common perpetrator of violence is a spouse or intimate partner.

Recent research from the United States revealed that aging does not protect women against sexual violence and that these crimes are almost never reported to the police; non-partner sexual assaults committed against women age 65 and older are reported 15.5% less frequently than assaults against younger women (ages 25 to 49).

New sector brief: Violence against Older Women

In recognition of the significant gaps in development policy and practice to confront the exclusion and violence against older women, the Violence against Women and Girls Resource Guide now includes a brief that examines the evidence base, data needs, and key entry points for addressing this issue. The brief also offers several examples of successful initiatives that can provide inspiration for future work in this area.

One example is the European Commission’s Breaking the Taboo project that has increased the ability of professionals working with older adults to detect violence against older women and to provide required support services to these survivors.

Another example is the Peruvian government’s specific efforts to make older women visible so that they could benefit from Pension 65, a non-contributory pension for people 65 or older. Because many older women had lived their whole lives without formal birth registration or documentation, the National Registry of Identification and Marital Status mobilized to register and include in the program a half a million poor older people, with women accounting for 55%.

Let’s build on these experiences and work together to help bring older women out into the light and reintroduce dignity and respect back to the aging process in our societies. How can we do that? For example, by:

  • Investing in expanded data collection on women over 49
  • Including older women’s voices and needs in national plans of action on violence against women and girls and gender equality
  • Training providers on how to reduce ageist biases that impede older survivors’ access to essential services.

In celebration of the International Day of Older Persons, I have a proposal: Can we all identify at least one way we can help to ensure that older women reappear and remain a priority beyond age 50?

*Guest bloggers: Jennifer McCleary-Sills, Director of Gender Violence and Rights at the International Center of Research on Women (ICRW) and Cailin Crockett, Special Assistant Special Assistant for Gender Policy and Elder Rights for the Assistant Secretary for Aging in the US Department of Health and Human Services.

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