CSW: women of old age - a lifetime of violence

Women's organisations working to address violence against older women are calling a for special convention of older people, and for amendments to the Agreed Conclusions now being argued over at the CSW.

Valeria Costa-Kostritsky
6 March 2013

At a panel entitled “Violence against older women: rethinking violence in the 21st century” Pat Brownell, from the task force on Older Women (SCOW) and the NGO Committee on Ageing, gave an overview of the various forms of violence that older people are suffering, and the challenges in addressing the problem without sufficient data. Surveys on violence against women rarely collect data after the age of 49, so that the violence and abuse that millions of women may be experiencing is going unrecorded. This issue is one that will certainly grow with global population ageing and increased numbers of older women.

What is known, is that the violence experienced by women of older age can be a life long experience because it frequently extends from partners of older women to their children, grand-children and their family. One study conducted in Kenya revealed that 60% of older women were being abused by their daughters-in-law who were preventing them from getting regular food, warm clothes, adequate shelter and medical attention.

What little data there is, shows that older women are made more vulnerable to violence by a series of factors including health problems, cognitive impairment, financial dependency and social exclusion. They not only face a combination of sexism and ageism, but also a denial by society and government that  violence against older women exists. As a consequence, shelters for abused women which were designed mainly for younger women with children, are often neither fit - because of the need for easy access and the ability to provide medication - or willing to welcome them. 

Bridget Sleap, from HelpAge International, presented the results of a recent cross-regional study conducted by her organisation in Kyrgyzstan, Peru and Mozambique as part of a wider project on older women and men's human rights. Working with the Centre for the Analysis of Social Exclusion, they used the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights model of structural, process and outcome indicators to look at five areas of rights, one of which was the right to protection from violence, abuse and neglect. The study, which filled a gaping hole in available disaggregated data for these categories among women over 50, was conducted with older women from very different socio-economical backgrounds in rural, urban and peri-urban areas, and looked at five areas of violence: economic, psychological, physical, sexual and malicious accusations.

Of the women surveyed, 39% in Kyrgystan, 75% in Mozambique and 83% in Peru  reported having experienced at least one category of abuse since the age of 50, with a prevalence of economic violence, followed by psychological – being belittled, degraded, humiliated or shamed - by people they knew or by their family members, followed by physical and sexual violence. Percentages of older women who had been accused of witchcraft were high in Mozambique, but also in Peru where 22% of women surveyed had been accused of witchcraft, and 18% had suffered physical or verbal attacks as a result of such accusations. The survey, although based on small sample sizes, showed that for many women violence continues throughout their lives.

Susan Somers, from the International Network for the Prevention of Abuse (INPEA) explained how elder abuse, despite being a very strong taboo, is gradually making its way into the UN agenda. In 2002, a report of the World Health Organisation, entitled Missing Voices, presented a picture of elder abuse in eight countries, focusing on primary health care. The situation, she said, has not changed today. The report found that older people were suffering from neglect through isolation, abandonment and social exclusion, violations of their human, legal and medical rights, deprivation of choices, decisions, status and respect.  In October 2010, CEDAW made a recommendation on older women and the protection of their human rights. In May 2011, Rashida Manjoo, UN Special Rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences, issued a major report about intersecting forms of violence in which she included old age as one of the factors exacerbating violence, and said that despite normative standards having been set internationally, violence against women remained a global epidemic.  Manjoo, whose mission is to travel across the world examining violence against women in different countries, has constantly stated that society  and States are responsible for allowing violence against women to happen. She said it once again at the opening of this CSW session. Her voice has been an important one in giving visibility to the abuse older women experience, and in profiling the way in which multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination continue to increase.

Meanwhile, in the fight for older people's rights, pressure from civil society mounts. The network of NGOs represented in this panel called for a special convention on the rights of older persons – arguing that they are a vulnerable special group that urgently needs protecting, and that unprecedented demographic of  ageing means that the number of people who may experience age discrimination and violation of their rights in old age will increase. HelpAge and the INPEA have presented amendments to the CSW agreement currently under discussion, asking for older women and widows to be included  (as well as references to “harmful widowhood practices” and “witchcraft accusations”). They asked feminists attending the event to add “women of old age” to their statements, whenever they can. They asked too for the celebration of the international day of older persons -  a day to raise the visibility of women of old age worldwide and end their exclusion from the debate about how to end violence against all women. 


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