The Fight for Older People’s Rights

Championing the rights and wellbeing of older people alongside a global network of partners and local NGOs is at the core of HelpAge International’s work. But entrenched ageism and discrimination mean that the rights of a growing population of older people continue to be overlooked. 

HelpAge was founded in 1983, one year after the adoption of the UN’s Vienna International Plan for Action on Ageing which formed the basis for new policies for older people over the following 20 years. Improvements for older people were implemented in higher-income countries, but little progress was made.


Early days 

HelpAge’s advocacy for older people’s rights began to gain momentum in the nineties. Sylvia Beales, who joined HelpAge as a policy manager in 1996, had seen the value of a UN Convention on the Rights of the Child while at Save the Children and started working with network members and Older People’s Associations to develop a rights programme which challenged age discrimination. 

In 1995, the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen saw world leaders prioritise social development for the 21st century. In 2000, the 24th special session of the UN General Assembly in Geneva, more commonly known as Copenhagen +5, convened to review successes and address gaps. Unlike before, HelpAge was there to ensure that older people were included this time.  

The concluding declaration included policies and programmes to support older people in poverty, the right to work, better research on older people living in lower-income countries and better access to health, education and social services. It also championed older people’s participation in the ‘development process’ and gave support to the Second World Assembly on Ageing, being held in Madrid the following year. 

Madrid 2002 

HelpAge coordinated consultations with older people in 32 countries and worked with the Bolivian and Kenyan governments to help shape the UN Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing (MIPAA).  

Mark Gorman, Director of Policy at HelpAge at the time, recalls: “We brought a large contingent of older people from the HelpAge network and partners from all over the world, and made a real impact on the conference and the Madrid Plan, large sections of which we had a big hand in drafting.” 

MIPAA gives greater focus to lower- and middle-income countries than the Vienna plan. It makes recommendations to improve older people’s lives with three priority areas: development, health and wellbeing, and creating enabling and supportive environments. This includes housing, support for carers of children and being safe from violence, abuse and neglect.  

HelpAge continues to support the five-yearly reviews that monitor MIPAA’s progress in supporting older people around the world. 


Hard-fought progress 

MIPAA was based on the Millenium Development Goals and Poverty Reduction Strategies – priorities in the development sector – which gave HelpAge an opportunity to position ageing into wider conversations.  

With no UN focal point for older people, Sylvia remembers how she and colleagues would put HelpAge papers outside conference rooms and on desks around the UN, watch who read them and then approach them for a conversation. They also attended events like the annual Commission on Social Development which looked at older people, family and disability issues, to raise concerns with governments and civil servants.  

“We had to be engaging and we had to be relevant”, recalls Sylvia.  

Momentum grew through the publication of the global AgeWatch Indexes – produced by HelpAge in 2012, 2014 and 2015 – which helped strengthen the case for older people’s rights.  

Calling for HIV data on people aged 50 and over and giving a platform for older people caring for grandchildren who had been orphaned to share their experiences at the UN helped shine a light on older people’s rights, challenging the misconception that older people were unaffected by the epidemic. HelpAge played a major role in UNAIDS publishing global estimates of HIV among the over-50s for the first time in 2013.  

HelpAge and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) developed their work on social protection, pressing the UN to include social protection and guidelines on the basic level of social security throughout people’s lives, including income security for older people. These social protection measures were included in the targets of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to end poverty and are recognised as a vital part in achieving them all. 

Sylvia was asked to speak at the 2015 UN Summit when the SDGs were adopted. “When I got the invitation, I was having a summer party in my house,” Sylvia says. “I sat down on my step and I wept because it was like ageing was finally there. It was at the top of the UN.” 


HelpAge steps up the call for a UN convention on older people’s rights 

The idea of an international instrument came from South American governments during the first five-year review of MIPAA in 2007.  

Bridget Sleap, who had joined HelpAge’s policy team in 2005, became the policy adviser on rights and approached the Commissions for Human Rights in Geneva and New York to raise the issue. She also began working on a country-by-country basis to monitor rights, address gaps in existing human rights systems and make recommendations. 

Her analysis was used to form the HelpAge recommendations that were adopted by the UN on how the 2010 UN Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women should be applied to older women. These included the valuable contribution older women can make in society, the right to work, access to social pensions and comprehensive healthcare. 

Bridget, who continued to work on rights for HelpAge as a senior policy adviser until 2021, explains: “It’s not about older people having new or different rights. It’s about taking the rights that everyone has and looking at them through a lens just as has been done for gender and women’s rights, children, racism, and disabilities.” 

She adds: “I’m proud of the way we would discuss the issues with older people themselves and produce reports based on this, their rights and the implications the convention would have for them.”  

The power of a UN convention 

A UN Convention on the rights of older people would: 

  • Commit ratifying countries to change their laws in line with the convention, leading to change in policies
  • Recognise older people as equal members in society
  • Raise awareness among older people of their rights  
  • Bring all rights related to older people into one place
Read more

Global campaigning  

HelpAge joined with network members to launch its global campaign for a UN convention on the rights of older people in 2009, one year before the open-ended working group on ageing was adopted by the UN General Assembly. 

Campaigners mobilised to call for a UN convention, demanding that governments protect older people’s rights and support their goal. This work was supported by HelpAge who helped make the case for a convention by gathering evidence from network members and working with academics to determine what it should cover. 

This global campaign was enhanced by the establishment of the Global Alliance for the Rights of Older People (GAROP), which today coordinates a network of almost 400 members organisations in around 80 countries raising the voice of older people and leading the call for the UN convention.  

“From my perspective, what was really needed was a platform for civil society to feed into the process and to have a voice,” Bridget says. “GAROP was a way to have a coherent and informed voice and HelpAge was instrumental to that.  

“We had such a strong group of committed network members who would also submit evidence into the process. Representatives would attend UN meetings and we had people from different countries who could explain the real lived experience of older people and the impact that a convention would have.” 


An uphill battle 

Despite building a global movement from the grassroots to the global level, tangible progress on a UN convention remains elusive. 

MIPAA remains the most significant global agreement for older people, but as Dr Alexandre Sidorenko, a HelpAge board member and policy expert on ageing, reflected on the 20th anniversary, it has not succeeded in addressing many of the challenges faced by older people. He attributes this to a lack of political will to finance the work or to prioritise ageing issues, and generally weak national infrastructures.  

Bridget believes that the context in which the campaign started made it harder, following on the heels of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2006. Many states were reeling from the cost of implementing the required legislative change and policies, not helped by the 2008 global economic crisis. Geopolitical developments and a backlash on human rights more broadly has also presented challenges. 

But the experience of older people during COVID-19 is a stark reminder of how important a convention is. HelpAge and network members reiterated their case to the UN in 2021, arguing that the pandemic had ‘brutally exposed systemic ageism and the dangerous lack of protection of older people’s human rights’. 

“The UN’s Secretary General Antonio Gueterres called for older people to be integrated in the COVID-19 humanitarian responses and guidance was provided to help agencies better support them”, Camilla Williamson, HelpAge’s Healthy Ageing Adviser explains.  

She continues: “But rather than protecting and promoting older people’s rights during COVID-19, all too often, older women and men were left behind in responses and treated as if expendable.” 

The fight for older people and generations to come will continue.