The Invisibility of Older Women

As fertility rates decline and life expectancy increases, the proportion of people aged 60 and over is growing globally, and nowhere so more than Asia. Currently more than 900 million people are aged 60 or over worldwide (12.5 percent of the global population). Nearly two-thirds – 533 million – are in the Asia Pacific region, which is at the forefront of the global aging phenomenon.

Women, with their longer life expectancy, constitute the majority – 53.5 percent of the population aged 60 or older in this region, which in 2013 encompassed 229 million older men and 261 million women above 60.

The proportion of older women increases even more with increasing age, rising to 60 percent above age 80. 75 percent of the region’s centenarians are women. In Philippines there were 136 women aged 65 and older for every 100 men in 2015. Among those aged 75 and above there were 162 women for every 100 men.

This feminization of aging is an important and yet highly neglected women’s issue. It has profound and far-reaching social, economic and political implications. The gender dimensions are in the forefront of the HelpAge Asia-Pacific Regional Conference 2016, being currently held in Hanoi, on the theme of “The Economic Implications of Aging.” There is a general consensus that female senior citizens are more disadvantaged than their male counterparts.

In an exclusive interview given to Citizen News Service, John Roland Beard, Director of Department of Ageing and Life-Course at the World Health Organization (WHO), agreed that there are many issues that specifically confront older women. Women tend to live longer than men and also tend to get married to men older than themselves. So a higher proportion of older women are likely to be widowed without adequate income support.

Economically, women in many countries do not have the opportunity of building the same social security safety nets as is available for men. Men are often the primary earner in the family, and when the man dies, the pension amount (if any) is reduced or becomes totally inaccessible to the widow. In some parts of the world, like in Africa, women have no ownership rights over property, and when the husband dies the widow is reduced to penury.

Sexuality and Aging

Beard said apart from economic and health problems, aging women have to grapple with isolation and loneliness.

"There is also the issue of sexuality in older people. Older people too have sexual rights just as younger people do,” he said. “But sexual rights of senior citizens are not spoken about at all and society holds to deny that they too like to have sex. This becomes particularly harder for older women who live alone. This issue should not be brushed under the carpet."

Thelma Kay, former Chief of the Social Development Division, UNESCAP and Senior Advisor on Aging Issues, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Singapore, echoed similar sentiments.

“Many women do not work and even for those who work, their careers are often interrupted due to raising of children and other family issues,” she said. “As pensions are usually built up over working years, women often do not have that cushion of security in their old age that men have”.

Even though women live longer than men, their health does not remain as good,” she said. “Instead of compressed morbidity women suffer from expanded morbidity. Women have different sets of medical problems and people do not realize that. They are sicker for longer periods – more so because of child bearing and other reproductive health related issues. Thus older women face worse health and financial security problems as compared to men.”

Unfortunately these special issues of older women are not been given due attention. Women need to be educated enough to take care of their health and genealogists should be trained into women health issues more, Kay said. Older women too should have their own social networks which should be strengthened.

Gender inequality and discrimination against women is perpetuated into old age. Women are more vulnerable to falling into poverty, often being more financially dependent than men due to lower participation in the workforce and lower education levels.

Invisibility of older women

The invisibility of older women is a serious global issue. The new post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) recognize the importance of older people and aging for sustainable development. SDG-3, which talks about ensuring healthy lives and promoting well-being for all at all ages, is particularly relevant.

Policymakers must focus on the challenges faced by an ageing female population and make inclusive policies for older women. They should not be left behind. The challenge is to ensure that governments follow their commitments around SDGs, by putting these goals into practice in a way that is fully inclusive of women and men of all ages.

Shobha Shukla, CNS, is the Managing Editor to Citizen News Service (CNS) and a regular contributor to Asia Sentinel