Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender Violence

All stakeholders must work hard to recognize and end violence against older Women

Opinion piece by Help Age International

Date: Thursday, November 30, 2017

Africa like other regions of the world is experiencing a rapid increase in the number of older people. Similarly with elsewhere, women are tending to outlive men. Older people unfortunately face a range of discrimination, abuse and neglect.  As the population of older people increases it is likely that the incidence of their abuse and neglect, and violence against them will also rise. Older women comprise 24% of the total population of women in the world.  The accumulated inequalities experienced by women throughout their lives can lead to high levels of poverty, exclusion and abuse in old age. High poverty levels, patchy or non-existent protective legislation, ageist attitudes and gender inequalities in inheritance and land laws, tension between traditional and new family structures, urbanization and restructuring of the basic support network for older people are some of the issues that have created an environment which is conducive to an increased risk of abuse, neglect and exploitation of older women.  

Violence against older women is widespread and yet it is largely unrecognised, remains hidden, and is widely ignored as reported, in July 2016, by the Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of Human Rights by Older Persons to the Human Rights Council,   ‘Violence against older persons is a global phenomenon. It takes many different forms and there are indications that it occurs frequently in all types of settings. It includes discrimination in the public sphere, linguistic discrimination, isolation, neglect, financial exploitation, psychological violence and the withholding of basic needs, as well as physical attacks. Such violence often goes unnoticed and remains a taboo in many societies, as the perpetrators are frequently relatives, such as the older person’s partner, spouse, children or children-in-law’  (Kornfeld-Matte K. Pg. (2014). 

Furthermore, reliable, comprehensive prevalence data on violence against older women is lacking (World Bank, 2016). Few countries have gender and age-disaggregated systems in place for recording and reporting violence against older women. Even where they do exist, incidents may go unreported because of older women’s fear of potential consequences and stigma, or these may not be recorded as cases of gender based violence because those registering them are not sufficiently sensitised to recognise the existence of violence against older women.

Photo: UN Women/Ryan Brown
Photo: UN Women/ Ryan Brown

The failure to consider the relationship between age, gender and violence means it is often assumed that Gender Based Violence is more frequently experienced by younger women. In Tanzania however, the Legal and Human Rights Centre reported 394 cases of killings of older persons due to witchcraft allegations in 2016, of whom 70% were older women. These combination of factors, leaves older women especially underserved by the current Gender Based Violence responses and without the possibility of redress or adequate medical, legal and psychosocial support.

While the majority of African countries have committed to the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and have policies and legislative frameworks that promote gender equality, protection of human rights, and non-discrimination, the specific national mechanisms necessary for the protection of older women are either lacking, poorly implemented, or suffer from weak accountability mechanisms. Further, the rights of older women are overlooked. Article 22 of the protocol to the African Charter on the Rights of Women in Africa provides the special protection of older women; despite this, there is an inconsistent and patchy approach to their protection at national level. . Adoption of such universal standards within a convention of the rights of older people would provide every government with guidance on how to improve their domestic legislation and practice to be line with international human rights standards in order to fully protect the older women in their country.

The 2017 theme for the 16 Days of Activism against gender based violence “Leave No One Behind: End Violence against Women and Girls” alongside the commitment of governments to “achieve equality and empower all women and girls” (SDG 5) and the removal of an upper age cap from data indicators on violence against women and girls, should together combine to catalyse action on the part of governments and society in order  to    ensure the protection of the rights of older women and specifically their right to freedom from violence, abuse and neglect.

To eliminate neglect, abuse and violence among older women, we are calling for the following:

  1. All stakeholders must 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
  2. Data to monitor the achievement of gender equality across the SDGs must be disaggregated by sex, age (in five-year cohorts), disability, location and other grounds for discrimination prohibited under international human rights law. Monitoring must include the 900 million women (24% of the world’s women) who are over 49 years old.
  3. In order to be inclusive of older women, data, policy and programmes addressing 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.
  4. States should have an obligation to take steps to prevent violence, abuse and neglect of older women in relation to, among other things, legislation and its effective implementation; training of care providers, healthcare and social workers, the judiciary and law enforcement; provision of access to a range of support services for older survivors; public prevention campaigns; and research into the intersectional drivers of violence.
  5. A 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.
  6. Full implementation of the provision on protection of older women in the Maputo Protocol (2003), urgent ratification and implementation of the AU Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights of Older Persons in Africa (2016) and an accelerated implementation of Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (2002).