Violence against older women, a discussion paper launched by HelpAge International at the start of the 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-based Violence campaign discusses the many ways in which older women are subjected to violence, abuse and neglect and what must be done to change this.
According to the paper, an older woman may be the victim of verbal and physical abuse in her home. She may be accused of “witchcraft” and attacked or even murdered by members of her own community. She may be denied the right to land from her husband when he dies due to discriminatory inheritance laws. Or she may be deprived autonomy in a care setting, with other people making decisions for her that may not be her wish.
For example, Bernice, 70, fled Burundi amid violence and political turmoil alone in early 2017. She settled in the Mtendeli refugee camp just over the border in Tanzania, but soon after arriving she was accused of being a witch by her neighbours.
The woman Bernice was sharing a tent with wanted to coerce her into leaving so that she could move her boyfriend in.
“I refused so they started spreading rumours that I am a witch, and that they don’t want me in the village and that if I stayed they would kill me,” Bernice said. “The boyfriend then pretended to be dead and the community started to say that I caused it. They came into my tent and beat me at about midnight.”
Deeply rooted prejudices and dehumanising stereotypes about older people fuel ageism and perpetuate prevailing social norms that tolerate or even condone violence, abuse and neglect in older age.
A HelpAge International project, funded by the EU, works to support the rights of and protect conflict-affected older South Sudanese migrants in Ethiopia and Uganda, as well as those internally displaced in South Sudan. The team works with different stakeholders, including older women themselves, to raise awareness of violence, abuse and neglect, and older women’s rights. HelpAge’s Protection and Inclusion programme manager, Nebyu Mehary, points out that evidence from the project shows that working with a variety of stakeholders, including the perpetrators, to challenge their behaviour and raise awareness of older women’s rights is critical in order to tackle this widespread yet hidden issue.
Older women are invisible in data
Despite older women experiencing all forms of violence, abuse and neglect, they remain invisible in datasets and are routinely excluded from policy and programmes to prevent and address violence against women and girls.
The lack of data on prevalence of violence over the age of 49 was illustrated in the WHO’s Global and regional estimates of violence against women report in 2013. The WHO explains that this is because most of the surveys on violence against women are carried out on women aged between 15 or 18 to 49.
There have been many initiatives to challenge this systematic exclusion, most notably the Sustainable Development Goal 5 indicator that commits to measuring violence against women beyond the former age cap of 49.
This leading to increased attention to violence and abuse against women in their older age, but at an unsatisfactory pace. States’ human rights obligation to protect older women from violence is not explicitly articulated in existing international human rights law.
The previous focus on women of “reproductive age,” (i.e. below the age of 49) is a manifestation of the intersection of ageism and sexism that sees women reduced to their reproductive function and only counted as “women” depending on their childbearing ability. If left unchallenged, it risks promoting a harmful stereotype that violence only happens in younger age, leaving older women’s experiences invisible.
National legislation, policies, strategies and plans of action to eliminate and provide redress for the varied forms of violence against older women vary widely, resulting in inconsistent and different levels of protection across different countries.
The discussion paper urges all stakeholders to recognise that older women experience violence, abuse and neglect, and include them in a meaningful way in any new and existing research, policy and programmes on violence against women and girls.
It suggests that to be inclusive of older women, data, work on violence against women and girls must widen their focus from sexual and physical intimate partner violence to include different forms of violence, abuse and neglect, and a wider range of perpetrators and settings. HelpAge suggests that a UN convention on the rights of older people should be adopted with explicit provisions on protection from violence, abuse and neglect faced by older women and men.