Justin Derbyshire, CEO, HelpAge International (left) chats with unidentified South Sudanese Older Woman trader at the Gambella Refugee camp in Ethiopia
Justin Derbyshire, CEO, HelpAge International (left) chats with unidentified South Sudanese Older Woman trader at the Gambella Refugee camp in Ethiopia

As member states and NGOs gather at the UN in New York for the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW), HelpAge International and its partners are calling for universal social protection for vulnerable older women.

Around the world, women are more likely than men to live in poverty throughout their lives, to be disempowered socially and economically, and have their rights denied. Most of the world’s older women struggle to survive and feed their families on very low incomes. They also greatly contribute to communities and economies through their work and care, which is often unrecognized and unpaid.

Increasingly, governments are moving towards universal non-contributory social pensions, and there is growing evidence that these are an effective and affordable solution, especially in countries with high levels of poverty and informal employment. They enhance women’s economic autonomy, strengthen their voice and agency, and can be an effective way of recognising the value of unpaid work.

Kenya has been a pioneer in developing social pensions. In 2018, President Kenyatta announced the roll-out of a universal cash transfer for all 833,000 Kenyan citizens aged 70 years and above, fully funded by the government with an annual allocation of USD 60 million. A digital citizen registry was set up to ensure all over-70s are registered and have access to pay points within 20 km of their homes.

Cecilia Mbaka, Head of the National Social Protection Secretariat in Kenya’s State Department of Social Protection, and a Trustee of HelpAge International, said: “We have long advocated for a universal pension, as previous means-tested schemes did not protect the most vulnerable older women. It has been a huge commitment to implement this scheme, and we see it as a vital investment to enable all citizens to live longer, healthier lives now and in future.”

According to Yvonne Kawira, a gender rights journalist, girls and women carry more than just babies, or water, or firewood. “They carry families, they carry potentials and investments and they carry businesses. Any investment in them in whatever form, creates a positive ripples effets tht lifts up entire communities,” she added.

In 2020, the global population aged over 60 will reach one billion, and is projected to double again by 2050. Growth is most rapid in low- and middle-income countries, with far-reaching implications that governments are only now beginning to address.

Justin Derbyshire, Chief Executive of HelpAge International, said: “Evidence from Kenya and other countries shows how the introduction of universal social protection systems can not only improve older women’s wellbeing and dignity, but also prevent and reduce poverty, inequality and social exclusion in society.

“This year could mark a major milestone on the journey towards universal social protection for women of all ages, and a sustainable future for all. At CSW next week, we are calling on Member States to make progress on this commitment.”

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