By Rachel Trayner and Sarah Marzouk
This International Women's Day, HelpAge International is delighted to be the proud recipient of the 2012 Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize.
The award is the world's largest humanitarian prize, and is presented each year to an organisation that has delivered extraordinary work to alleviate human suffering.
The Hilton Prize will be presented at the Global Philanthropy Forum on 16 April in Washington, DC. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation receives more than 200 nominations from around the world every year and the recipient is selected by an independent international jury.
"A great honour"
Steven M Hilton, CEO and president of the Foundation said: "The world is ageing. By 2015, over 890 million people will be over 60. As the world prepares for this monumental demographic shift, HelpAge is showing us that it is important to recognise and support older people so they can continue to be contributing and productive members of society."
On being selected for the award, Richard Blewitt, HelpAge International's CEO said: "It is a great honour. It is especially meaningful to draw the world's attention to the historic transformation being brought about by global ageing and the plight of millions of older people who face overwhelming financial, social and health hurdles every day.
"At HelpAge, we believe the whole world benefits when we tap the substantial wisdom and talents of older people and enable them to lead dignified, active, healthy and secure lives."
Recognising the role of rural older women
Making the announcement today on International Women's Day, the Foundation recognised the role of rural older women who care for families, contribute to communities and play a major part in food production across the developing world.
"Older women are responsible for much of the farming and food production in developing countries, a critical function as food insecurity grows," notes Catherine A. Bertini, Hilton Prize juror, Syracuse University professor, and former executive director of the United Nations World Food Program. "They are the key contributors to families and communities."
Working on the farm at 68
An example of this is Mama Teresa. She is 68 and a farmer living in Kenya. She said: "I was married at 22 and had ten children, five of whom have died. My husband died in 1982.
"I care for four grandchildren. It is very hard because I have so many and I try to educate them, but money is not there. I also work on the farm and make money from my crops. I have two calves, but I cannot sell them. I need the milk for my family to help them grow.
"In 2008, I joined the Older Citizens Monitoring Group set up by HelpAge International's Affiliate KESPA, to monitor how healthcare officials were treating older people. If you go to the hospital, they don't welcome us properly. You stay there so long, sitting on benches, four to five hours without being seen because you are old.
"Because of our group's work, they now attend to older people as soon as they see us sitting there. But there is still much more to do. I would like them to come and assist us in our homes so we don't have to travel so far."
Support needed for hidden workforce
Worldwide there are an estimated 450 million small-scale farms, like the one Mama Teresa works on. They support a population of roughly 2.2 billion people and represent 85% of the world's farms.
There is growing global concern over the sustainability of food production, distribution of food and increasing food prices as well as the impact of climate hazards, environmental degradation and depletion of natural resources.
Older women make huge contributions as farmers and caregivers. They have knowledge and experience of farming techniques and weather patterns. This can increase production, reduce waste and help mitigate the impacts of a changing, less predictable climate.
However, more action is needed to support this forgotten workforce. Blewitt concluded: "On International Women's Day, HelpAge wants older women farmers to get the help they deserve, including targeted agricultural subsidies, a basic pension for agricultural workers and improved sharing of agricultural skills with children to protect future generations."
International Women's Day photogallery
Portraits of older women surviving in Kenya's rural communities: