Come the month of March, there is focus on celebrating Women’s Day in several parts of the world. This time there’s a strong call-to-action to press forward and progress gender parity as gender equality for women, which is definitely improving, has yet not been fully achieved. While celebrating Women’s Day is a welcome initiative motivating and uniting friends, colleagues and communities to think, act and bring gender parity, it can’t be achieved if we are not age inclusive too. We need to challenge stereotypes and biases against age and forge positive visibility for women of all ages. Often disparities of gender inequality sharpen with age. Older women lose out to younger women but this needs to be stopped as the population is ageing. Today in many countries, particularly in the developed world, there are more people aged 60 and above than under 18. This trend will accelerate in the coming years, including developing countries in Asia, which have a substantially large proportion of world’s ageing population and where increasingly older women are outliving older men.
As Gloria Steinem, once said “the story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist...”, more so not only for younger counterparts. Across countries women are making gains in all spheres of life, receiving support from governments, civil society and people at large. But the contribution of older women to society needs special recognition, especially in terms of protecting their income and emotional security as we know that a large proportion of them become widows as they age. Women live longer than men in large number of countries and also live with lower incomes and less access to land, housing and other assets that would help them maintain an adequate standard of living. Bringing gender equality and removing age discrimination is also the aim of Sustainable Development Goals, which were adopted by United Nations member countries in 2015. To make sure that this philosophy of inclusion is realised we need to include older men and women in development. We need to stop age discrimination in work places, communities and society. Age along with disability and ethnicity is one of the factors causing barriers for inclusion in the development process and in the domains of everyday life activities limiting access to opportunities and well-being. Political will must be strengthened to allow men and women of all ages to live as citizens with dignity and respect.
Globally, women’s education, health and violence towards women are still worse than that of men. Recent elder abuse data from many countries reflects a gendered picture with older women being more vulnerable to being victims of neglect, mistreatment and abandonment. Abuse is happening not only within the family but in old age homes, assisted living facilities and institutional care provisions. In recent times there have been media and police reports of older women being victims of sexual violence, including rape and molestation, besides financial exploitation. There is crescendo of voices to stop abuse of older men and women. The progress is certainly being made in many parts of the world to combat abuse from a human rights perspective, but not enough is being done yet. Legislations to protect older men and women in households, community, market place and in service establishments need to be put in place and various kinds of agencies made aware of safeguarding the interests of older people, in particular of older women who because of different vulnerabilities and structural disadvantages are more prone to becoming victims of undesirable circumstances.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day and critically reflect on the progress made towards achieving gender equality and women’s empowerment we need to strive for a greater momentum not only towards gender equality but also stop age discrimination worldwide. It is a day to recognise the contribution women of all ages make towards society. The upcoming 62nd session of the UN Commission on the status of women should draw attention to the rights and activism of women of all ages residing in rural and urban areas in keeping with this year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day, “Time is Now: Rural and urban activists transforming women’s lives”.
It is also time for fulfilling the agenda of sustainable development of leaving no one behind. Governments, civil society and individuals themselves can change institutions which perpetuate exclusion.
Let’s hope that the trajectory surrounding women’s rights reaches out to all age groups in the coming decades.
The writer is associate professor, department of sociology, Maitreyi College, University of Delhi, with specialisation in health, gerontology and development studies. Email LittleThingsMatter@gmail.com