As an organisation, HelpAge International has talked about the importance of older people's voices being heard, and providing platforms for this to happen. The Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) takes place every year at the United Nations, and..

Why we spoke out about age discrimination at the UN



Ruth Rodriguez and Mira Matic


As an organisation, HelpAge International has talked about the importance of older people’s voices being heard, and providing platforms for this to happen. The Open-ended Working Group on Ageing (OEWG) takes place every year at the United Nations, and is its only process focused on older people’s rights.

This year Miroslava from Serbia and Ruth from Chile attended the OEWG in New York and spoke about the discrimination older people face in their countries, and asked governments to think about which rights should be included in a new convention for older people. Here they share their experiences.

Miroslava: “I am glad I was here to speak”

If someone had told me 20 years ago that I would visit New York to attend a United Nations meeting, I would not have believed them. I am from Serbia and live in a town on the outskirts Belgrade. I worked as an interpreter for 23 years and after that taught English for 16 years. I am now retired, but I still carry on doing work as an interpreter and teaching English. I like keeping busy.

I represented the Red Cross of Serbia at the UN – an organisation I have volunteered with for a number of years. I was proud to be representing older women from my country, and to be able to speak out about the discrimination older people face in Serbia.

I do not like to hear “you are old, you can’t do that”. The right to equality and non-discrimination was one of the themes at the OEWG, and I spoke during a meeting specifically about the discrimination I have experienced because of my age, and what I think governments should do to prevent this.

Discrimination in older age is everywhere

Discrimination against older people takes many forms and is everywhere around us. Often we don’t recognise it when we are young.

I spoke about the discrimination older people face when it comes to travel insurance. I have travelled a lot in my life, and I recently learned that I must pay more for travel health insurance because I had reached a certain “age limit”. With different insurance companies, there are different age caps, whether 65, 70 or 75. They are all different. When I apply for insurance I am not asked how my health is. The decision is made purely on my age. I feel manipulated and discriminated against.

We should not be treated differently because of our age. I would like my country to protect me against discrimination in every aspect of my life, and to guarantee equality and dignity as I age.

Equality is about having the freedom to make decisions about my life

It is important to have the freedom to do things you want to do when you get older. The little things really matter and can make a big difference. I know not everyone my age has these priviliges. You must arrange your life so that you can do things that please yourself. It is important to choose exactly how you live your life as you grow older.

I’m glad that I was here to speak at the OEWG. It gave me the chance to hear about what governments are doing to protect older people’s rights and to make sure my voice was heard, to represent older women from Serbia.

Ruth: “It felt like a dream being at the UN”

I work for the Catholic Church in Chile where I organise volunteers to work with older people’s community groups – working with older generations at the grassroots level is very important to me.

Earlier this year I took part in a consultation with older women where we were asked questions about what equality and non-discrimination means to us, and how older women should be protected against violence, abuse and neglect in older age. This contributed to the Entitled to the same rights report that we took to the UN and I was proud able to say that I took part in it.

Voices from the grassroots must be heard, and to come from Chile to talk about the experiences of older women in my country was an important opportunity.

We become invisible, as we get older

It is hard getting older in Chile. It’s a stage of life that’s not very visible. If I say “I’m old” and tell people my age, they say “no you’re not, you don’t need to say that”. But I am the number of years I have lived and I am getting older, just like everyone else.

Growing older is seen negatively. In Chile, people want to look youthful. It is seen as a good thing. But as you age, you lose your looks and become less visible. It can be really challenging.

Discrimination based on gender and age

Our society is very patriarchal. Women are strong, we take care of our families and hold down jobs, but men are still the ones who make decisions. It happens both within our families and across the wider society.  

Getting older as a women is has its own difficulties. We are disadvantaged for both our gender and our age. When we try to find work, we are often not considered for promotions because we are considered too old.

I know of one older woman who was told she was too old to learn new things and would therefore not be considered for a promotion. The unpaid, domestic work we often carry out means we have lower pensions than men, and this can make it harder for older women to sustain themselves in their later years.

Our voices must be heard

Throughout the meeting, I heard people talking about population ageing and the number of older people there will be in 20 years. Older people are living now, we need to do something now.

I hope this year’s OEWG helps move the process forward so that we see a new convention for older people in the near future, and not in 50 years! I’m passionate about older people’s rights and will keep raising awareness and working to ensure our voices are heard. It felt like a dream being at the UN and it gives me strength to keep fighting for older people’s rights!

Find out more about how we are working towards a UN convention.