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Fighting for older people's rights in emergencies

30 Sep 2009

A group of young men jeered when they saw the HelpAge International logo on the side of our vehicle: "Here come the old people's organisation! We have lots of old people here - what are you going to do for them?"

Sadly, this was not the first time we had encountered this kind of cynicism. In drought-ravaged Turkana, northern Kenya, older people are often seen as a burden, beyond help or simply not a priority. "Survival of the fittest" is the order of the day in Turkana and older people are struggling to cope.

Discrimination against older people is obvious

This is obvious in the dusty towns and villages scattered throughout this part of Kenya. Although the official statistics tell us that only a small proportion of people are aged over 60, it is clear that older people make up a significant proportion of the most vulnerable.

Across Turkana, dusty towns and villages seem to be filled with older people. These older people have either lost their livestock to the drought or are too weak to walk for days in the blistering heat in search of pasture for their family's remaining animals. They have no choice except, as one older woman told me, "to wait and hope that food aid will come".

Despite this situation, discrimination against older people (particularly older women) is obvious at every level. Many staff of the aid agencies working here are reluctant to accept that older people need special attention.

No understanding of older people's needs

Focusing on the needs of older people is even seen by some aid workers as illegitimate when the drought is affecting people of all ages. Privately however, other aid workers involved in the distribution of emergency food aid admit that older people are perhaps the single biggest vulnerable group in this crisis. From them, this is a self-evident truth.

Yet even those who do acknowledge the need for action often lack an adequate understanding of older people's needs and the requirements of delivering emergency support in an age-friendly manner. A recent discussion with a senior humanitarian agency manager about making their programmes more age-sensitive led to a strongly worded rebuke: "We have never done it before, I don't see why we need to do it now."

Older people often support their families

The assumption that older people have nothing to contribute to helping their communities emerge from this crisis is also widespread resulting in their exclusion from the precious few development programmes that do exist. Yet this fails to acknowledge that older people often live in families who they both support and are supported by.

An older woman receiving a social pension as part of a cash transfer pilot programme in northern Kenya (implemented by a consortium of organisations including HelpAge International) recently explained how she planned to use the cash to replace the goats she had lost in the drought and ensure that her granddaughter was able to go to school.

While human rights principles demand that the needs of older people in emergencies are not ignored, clearly older people also offer an entry point for supporting many of the most vulnerable families.

Read more about HelpAge's work in emergencies. 

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Author profile

Sarah Marzouk
Country: UK
Job title: Digital Communications

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