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International Women’s Day: Stop this silence on violence against older women

International Women's Day: Nyamizi, 73, was accused of being a witch and attackedAfter inequity earlier in life because they are female, the majority of women in poorer countries suffer prejudice again once they become older - a double burden of discrimination.

In many societies, being widowed or single, either through divorce or never having married, profoundly changes a woman's status in society, even more so for an older woman.

The physical and mental impact on older women of a lifetime of discrimination and violence can be profound, limiting their ability to access services, make decisions and participate in their communities and rendering them more vulnerable to exploitation.

Inheritance laws often deny women the right to own or inherit property. Family members and others often force widows off their land or seize their property.

Gender-based discrimination can also be made worse by ageism which can result in violence and abuse against older women in their homes or institutional care.

Attacked for being a witch

Take the horrendous case of Nyamizi, 73, from Sukumaland, Tanzania where witchcraft accusations are a critical factor in women's rights abuses.

A widow for four years, she was accused by a neighbour of using witchcraft to cause the death of his child.

She said: "I received a threatening letter which said ‘You must leave this village, move 15 villages away from here. If not, the sungu-sungu (local security forces) from this village will do something that you will never, ever forget'... When I was returning home late one night, suddenly, someone came running towards me - he struck me with a machete and chopped off my arm and slashed my head."

Nyamizi fought to have her case heard in court but was unsuccessful and has never received justice for what happened to her.

More data, more debate, more action

The UN Secretary-General has cited violence and abuse against older people as a priority concern.

But often data collected on violence against women is limited to that of physical and sexual violence.

What little data there is, shows that older women, many of whom have experienced violence throughout their lives, are exposed to additional types of violence including economic, psychological and neglect.

The current international human rights system does little to shed light on the issue, nor to support governments to understand their obligations to protect older women's rights.

However even where development programmes are targeted at women, older women may be excluded.

For example the reproductive health debate largely fails to address the problems suffered by post-menopausal women as an outcome of multiple pregnancies undergone in poor health conditions.

The fact that health systems continue to ignore these problems characterises a wider neglect of women's health in older age.

Despite discrimination and the challenges they face in the poorest countries, older women are almost entirely absent from the feminist debate.

Neither the extraordinary resilience of older women, nor the discriminatory laws, policies and social norms which reinforce their poverty and exclusion, are being addressed.

It is critically important the development agenda which succeeds the Millennium Development Goals after 2015 recognises the need to support older women and helps them lead dignified lives.

What can be done?

In October 2010, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) took a major step forward when it adopted its General Recommendation No. 27 on "older women and protection of their human rights".

The recommendation compels countries to address multiple discriminations against older women.

But more international coordinated action will dramatically improve policy responses on elder abuse. This is urgently needed.

For women of all ages (including those of 49 years and older) education and awareness campaigns are essential to change negative social and cultural attitudes.

However before these can be achieved we recommend the following:

  • Collect, disaggregate and disseminate data on violence against women beyond the age of 49.
  • Improve measurement of psychological and economic violence.
  • Increase research on under-documented forms of violence against women, including psychological and economic violence.

What next?

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Eppu Mikkonen-Jeanneret
Job title: Head of Policy

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These blogs are personal reflections and do not necessarily reflect the views of HelpAge International.