Old women
Old women

Today as we celebrate International Women’s Day, I think of my aunt Salima who lives in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.

Old women
Old women

Salima says she is 100 years old and she has been 100 for the last 10 years or so. We think she might be about 80 now but no one will know for sure apart from the fact that she was born during the year of locusts in her village. However her age is no longer a big issue for any of us anymore.

We are just grateful she is still alive and can tell us stories of our grandparents and of her village where she and her five other sisters spent most of their childhood. Having lost my mom 14 years ago, she remains the most important connection to my history and heritage.

Although her health continues to deteriorate by the day she has a good memory and can remember most of the events and stories. For the last 15 years or so she has been affected by all sorts of illnesses associated with old age. She has been battling high blood pressure, a weak heart, diabetes, and can no longer use her legs. For the last couple of years, she has been in and out of hospitals due to her multiple conditions. Each time she is admitted to the hospital, the family has to pay a fortune for her medical bills. Increasingly this is becoming very stressful for everyone.

My aunt Salima is one among millions of older women in Africa and all over the world who face health, economic and social problems and unfortunately most of government policies and plans do not adequately address their vulnerabilities and provide lasting solutions.

According to Global Age Watch Index Report 2015 published by HelpAge international, older people all over the world experience many hardships, are discriminated against and abused, with few able to access the basic social services. The Global Index measures four key domains for older people, covering the most crucial aspects of their wellbeing, experience and opportunities which are income security, health status, capability, and the enabling environment.

A lifetime of gender discrimination combined with the inequality of old age have a devastating effect on older women. According to Life Ledger- a US based platform providing services to older people, compared to men, elderly women are three times more likely to be widowed or living alone, spend more years and a larger percentage of their lifetime disabled, are nearly twice as likely to reside in a nursing home, and are more than twice as likely to live in poverty.

This is becoming a huge challenge as the global population continue to grow older. According to United Nations reports of 2013, the current population of older people is estimated to be 12.3 per cent. This is expected to increase to 21.5 per cent in 2050. In Africa older people currently account for 5.3 per cent of the population, or 24.8 million people. This population of 60 and above will increase to 39.5 million people by 2030.

Older people depend on Social Security for income. However, due to decades of discrimination and exclusion from formal employment, only fewer women can actually access the social security. Women spend their lifetime working in low income jobs with few benefits or taking care of the family, which limit their ability to accumulate and access social security in old age. As a result, older women tend to be poor compared to older men.

Countries like Kenya, Uganda and others have introduced cash transfer systems for the most vulnerable groups including older men and women, although this is commendable, the programmes only reach a small percentage of older people, many more continue to be left out.

“We have seen how this cash transfer transforms older people’s lives. They are able to access the most basic needs –food, buy medication and some of them can actually start income generating activities. There is a greater sense of graduation for the poorest househods,” says George Kamau- HelpAge International Acting Country Director for Kenya. HelpAge International is responsible for overseeing the accountability of Hunger Safety Net Programme of the Government of Kenya that delivers cash transfers to 100,000 vulnerable households—out of which 30% are households with older people. Each household receive KSH 5100 every two months.

Since women tend to live longer than men, they tend to have more chronic health problems and require health care more frequently. In addition due to devastating impact of HIV and AIDS, older people particularly older women are increasingly left with the responsibility of childcare without any formal support. This continues to create a huge strain on them and their families.

“Although family ties remain strong in Africa, traditional support systems are changing,” says Wamuyu Manyara- Social Protection Advisor HelpAge International. “Increasingly we see older people taking care of their grandchildren. In most countries in eastern and southern Africa, 40-60% of orphans and vulnerable children are under the care of an older person, most of whom have no sustainable income.

Unfortunately most of the women’s rights activists and human rights groups focus on advancing the rights of women and girl forgetting that women are no homogenous group. The needs, capabilities and issues are different thus require specific attention.

However African governments have recognized the value of older people and challenges they face every day. As a result, a protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Older People was adoption by Heads of Heads in January 2016. The Protocol outlines governments’ specific human rights obligations to older people. It requires African governments to develop policies and programmes to advance the human rights of older people and have specific articles addressing older women.

This is a huge step in addressing the key challenges of older people. However for this to bring meaningful change to the lives of older people, member states must ratify the Protocol and introduce and strengthen national laws and policies to protect older people.

The 2016 theme for International Women’s Day is “Planet 50-50 by 2030: Step It Up for Gender Equality”. I’m hoping that as we Step up our efforts this year, we will remember to talk about older women like my aunt Salima and push our governments to ensure Planet 50-50 has a special space for older women. I’m hoping that we will include them in our conversations, campaigns and give them space to tell us the stories.

Source: Jamillah Mwanjisi

The writer is the Head of Policy, Advocacy and Communications HelpAge International East, West and Central Africa region.

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