Islamabad: Women over the age of 50 account for 22 per cent of the world’s female population. Yet data sets both confirm and reinforce the exclusion of older women, who are not being counted despite the 1995 Beijing Declaration providing a clear mandate for their inclusion.
While welcoming the focus on women and girls as a global development priority, HelpAge International Pakistan believes older women fall within an unwitting but serious blind spot. In order to achieve substantive equality for all women, the organisation has once again called for increased visibility of older women in national and global data sets, and their inclusion in development planning and programmes.
In an interaction with this scribe, a HelpAge representative flagged the need for commitment to and investment in collection, analysis and publication of data on women, particularly in view of documented evidence suggesting that older women may be subject to violence, neglect and other forms of abuse, some specific to their age, and may be deprived of basic goods and services. “Older women risk suffering the final indignity of being excluded from the movement to bring about the equality that many have been denied throughout their lives. Global action is long overdue to address this injustice beyond reproductive age,” he stated.
Older people often face difficulties in accessing basic human rights, and in this case, vulnerabilities of older women are double than men. Women live longer but they live more years in ill-health than man. Multiple pregnancies and poor support in childbirth compounded with disadvantage and inequalities in early life such as lack of access to health care, inadequate nutrition, schooling and lower income levels, contribute to poor health outcomes for many women in countries like Pakistan.
Women face both physical and cultural barriers to optimal health. Studies have found that women experience gynaecological problems throughout their reproductive years and beyond, in part due to limited medical care, combined with high parity. As they move towards menopause and beyond, they are at risk from symptoms associated with hormonal changes, heart diseases and stroke, gynaecological malignancies, osteoporosis and various genitourinary conditions.
Key findings of a research by HelpAge International Pakistan show that every fourth person visiting the outpatient department (OPD) facility in Punjab is an older woman or man; and that pelvic inflammatory disease is the most common cause of admission by older women at tertiary level facilities in Punjab.
The 1995 Beijing Declaration recognised age discrimination as one of the factors contributing to the barriers to women’s empowerment. The challenges that older women face were referenced in eight places as follows: health concerns, reproductive and sexual health issues, laws against gender discrimination in the workplace, policies and programmes on HIV/AIDS as well as information, programmes and services to assist women to understand and adapt to the changes associated with ageing.
In December 2010, the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women reaffirmed the need to address the concerns and rights of older women with the introduction of General Recommendation 27 on older women and protection of their human rights. Despite this, progress is slow. Substantive equality for older women is far from being a reality.
As ageing population is rapidly growing; countries around the world are developing new laws and policies to facilitate their older population and meet the challenges of population ageing. The government of Pakistan had ratified Madrid Plan of Action for Older people back in 1992. The implementation of this plan of action has remained very slow. The governments of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Sindh and Balochistan have passed the Senior Citizens Act respectively in 2014, 2016 and 2017, but implementation is yet to commence.
At the federal level, a national policy on Senior Citizens drafted with inputs of a wide range of experts is still pending with the government for over two years. Similarly, a draft bill is pending with the government of Punjab for more than two years. In addition, there are several developmental and human rights policies in Pakistan that are not inclusive of older women and men.
Internationally, at the UN level, a convention on the rights of older people is under discussion for a few years. Pakistan’s participation in convention-related discussion and support for an international convention to protect older people’s rights has also not been very strong.