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Lions not lambs: “Age helps” in action in Brazil

09 Apr 2009

Alex KalacheAlex Kalache, HelpAge International's Global Ambassador reports on the Rights of Older Persons Conference in Brasilia...

I was inspired and thrilled by the recent Rights of Older Persons Conference in Brasilia. I would not need to have been born in Brazil and feel strongly about my country to feel this way. By all accounts, other participants were equally enthralled by the event.

It all took place from 18-20 March. The Conference was coordinated by the Office of President Lula - more specifically, by the Special Secretary of Human Rights (SSHR).

However, this was not a governmental event. From conception and planning to its running, the SSHR worked closely with representatives of civil society organisations and public entities that form the National Council of Human Rights of Older Persons.

A formidable example of civic and social participation

Yes, the Government facilitated and made the Conference possible but the process was bottom up from the very beginning.

This conference was preceded by 1,154 (!!) municipal conferences with the direct participation of 61,000 people. Then, each of the 28 States that form the Federation organised their own state conferences bringing the elected representatives of the concerned municipalities together.

Finally, they collectively chose the 600 delegates that came to Brasilia for the National Conference. A formidable example of civic and social participation!

Refusing to age silently

Older people in Brazil are refusing to age silently. I can assure you that this degree of grassroots mobilisation is taken very seriously by today's seniors in Brazil. Why? Easy to understand; we are talking about a cohort of older persons who, in their youth, were fighting the dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s.

These are not people that are going to age silently. Activism has been part of their life course and now, in older age, they are determined to ensure that their rights are respected - after all their rights were denied to them when they were younger.

It's not surprising the countries leading the process towards the adoption of a UN Convention on the Rights of Older People are precisely those in Latin America plagued by totalitarian regimes some 30 years ago.

And don't think that the delegates - and I again emphasise, democratically elected by their peers - were only members of the professional elite or diehard civil servants from somewhere. I give you an example.

Drive and determination

On my first morning at the hotel I was waiting for the lift to come down for my breakfast. I was then approached by an older man, not dressed up - let us say - Brasilia style. He seemed a little confused, frail, somehow uncomfortable in that environment.

He asked me if I was going to the restaurant and if so, if he could join me. Once inside the lift he explained: "I am not used to these machines. Actually, this is the second time I have used one of them - the first was last night when I arrived at the hotel. "

Later that day I saw my new friend in one of the conference workshops. A lion. This former Union of Rural Workers leader from the State of Pernambuco - one of the poorest in the country - knew exactly what he was fighting for. A true leader. Next to him was an older woman from Sao Paulo, also elected by her peers - but, in her case, a former President of her State Bar of Lawyers...

There was an unparallel degree of drive and political determination. Everyone there was fully aware of their role in contributing to bringing together a system to ensure consolidation and implementation of the rights of the older population of Brazil.

Government commitment

In his remarks at the opening session of the Conference (attended by eight of his Cabinet colleagues) Minister Paulo Vannuchi (Special Secretary to the President on Human Rights ) stated that:

"In the historical journey towards the defence and consolidation of Human Rights in Brazil, it is remarkable how much progress has been achieved in recognising the importance of respecting the dignity of the elderly population.

"After all, their social, political, economic and cultural contributions deserve to be seen as indispensable to the process of transforming Brazil in a more just, socially well balanced society, firmly based on the principles of solidarity and mutual respect."

Three intense days of much work followed. The preceding 1150 municipal conferences had generated 2050 proposals - obviously, an impossible number to handle. The State-level conferences started the process of streamlining them to a more manageable number.

A month before the Conference, a sub-committee (again appointed by their peers) met and cut down the number of proposals to 405. Together they formed the baseline text that was discussed at the Conference.

The final product is a document now endorsed by the Government to be submitted to lawmakers as the ultimate expression of the wishes and views of Brazilian older population in relation to their rights.

At the closing session Minister Vannuchi pledged, on behalf of President Lula, the Government's resolve and determination to work towards the establishment of an international treaty for the protection of the rights of older people.

This former political prisoner is determined. He knows that while there are nine main international treaties on human rights at the UN, the one missing is a convention to ensure the international protection of the rights of older persons.

And that it is not admissible that mistreating, discriminating or abusing an older person is more acceptable than doing so to a child, a woman, an immigrant, a disabled person or a member of an ethnic minority.

Humbled and holding back the tears

I felt honoured to be invited as HelpAge International's Global Ambassador to be the keynote speaker at the opening session of this Conference. What a privilege!

That day, the enthusiastic applauding of my peers made me feel humble. For them the applause - and the tears I could not hold back. Why should I have!??

Read more about HelpAge's work for older people's rights

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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.