The invisible older woman

by Lisa Anderson | | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 18 March 2015 06:47 GMT

A special order mannequin of an older woman wearing a headscarf is seen at a factory in Ankara, January 8, 2014. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

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Most data collection on the status of women stops after age 49, resulting in a dearth of information on older women

When experts talk about the "invisible older woman", it turns out they aren't just being dramatic.

They're simply being realistic.

Most data measuring the state of women around the world - in terms of health, employment or, really, anything - do not include information on women over the age of 49, according to experts speaking on a panel at the U.N. 59th Commission on the Status of Women in New York this week.

So basically we know fairly little about older women, even though there will be a growing number of them as the world population ages. The number of people over 60 – currently at 850 million – is projected to swell to 1 billion in the next 10 years, and 2 billion by 2050.

Some 80 percent of these older people will be in emerging and developing economies. Women, who live longer than men, will be the majority of them, said Susan Markham, senior coordinator for gender equality and women's empowerment at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).

Yet no one seems to think about them in terms of policy, programmes or even in terms of women.

"They are strangely invisible," said Kathy Greenlee, assistant secretary for aging at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. "I often find when people are talking about women and girls they're not talking about older women.  When they talk about families and children, they rarely talk about grandparents."

In fact, the bulk of money from international donors for aid programmes goes to women of childbearing age because there is a wealth of data on them, but nearly no data on women over the age of 49, said USAID's Markham.

As a result, the unique problems of older women - though in some developed countries, 49 hardly seems old - do not get the attention they deserve, the panel said.

Many of those problems are rooted in issues that begin in younger years - such as inadequate nutrition and lack of access to employment opportunities and education - and come to fruition at later ages.

For example, because of poverty and poor diet, many older women suffer from chronic anaemia. Because of lack of access to education, many older women are illiterate. Because of lack of access to paid employment, many older women have no pension to sustain them.

Age, alone, exacerbates every kind of discrimination against women, whether in the home, commmunity or workplace, said Argentina's ambassador to the United Nations Maria Cristina Perceval.

"To be old in this world is to be poor. And if you're old and you're female, you're more likely to be poor," Greenlee said, noting that 6.5 million older Americans are poor.

Not only poor, but more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Elder abuse is still an issue that tends to be considered a private problem - rather than a public one - primarily effecting older women.

Elder abuse has to be examined and addressed in the same way as child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault, said Greenlee.

Importantly, the panellists pressed for more statistics to understand better the way older women live and the problems they face.

"There is a need for data to make sure older women are not invisible anymore, to make older women count," said Kate Bunting, CEO of HelpAge USA, a global charity that advocates for older people.

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