Older women often live in poverty. They have no one to care for them, after spending their lives providing unpaid care for friends and family. Ageing is inevitable of course, but its gendered injustices shouldn’t be. It’s time to make ending pensioner poverty a priority and providing decent elderly care services for all.
The global population aged 60 years and over is projected to double by 2050, reaching a record 2 billion. This raises important questions that we need to address as a society. Can our current health and pension services live up to the challenge of our ageing population? Who will care for the growing number of elderly people? These are hot political topics in many developed countries. However, two thirds of the world’s elderly in fact live in the developing world and by 2050, this share will have risen to almost 80%. The challenge of trying to provide income security and care for all older people is daunting in areas with widespread poverty. Their health systems are already overburdened. Family and community support is increasingly stretched.
Ageing has a female face, so why have policies been slow to respond to the rights of older women? Not only are women over-represented among the elderly, since they live longer than men, but they also have to face greater financial hardship. Because of a lifetime of discrimination, women usually end up with fewer savings and assets that could assist them to maintain an adequate standard of living in old age. Additionally, pension systems grossly fail to protect them from poverty.
Globally, only around half of people above retirement age have access to a pension. In the majority of countries, women are less likely than men to receive one and, where they do benefit, they are usually paid less. In China, poverty rates among older women are about four times higher than among older men. And in the EU, older women are 37% more likely than men to live in poverty.
Gender inequality in old age is as much about cash as it is care. Prevalent gender norms and the fact that women tend to outlive their spouses, means that they provide the bulk of unpaid care for their ageing partners. Often, they also play an important role in caring for grandchildren, which enables their parents to keep employment. Or they take their place as primary caregivers when children are orphaned or left behind, in the context of migration. Whilst many older women take pride in this work, there is next to no social recognition or reward and the costs to their own emotional and physical well-being can be high.
It’s ironic that women who spend a lifetime caring for others end up poor, because of pension systems that fail to recognize their contribution, and have no one to rely on when they themselves grow old and need help.
But old age needn’t be a double whammy for women. UN Women’s flagship report Progress of the World’s Women 2015-2016 is evidence that putting in place the right policies can make a huge difference. Universal social pensions establish the right to an old age pension for all elderly—women and men—regardless of their employment histories and family status. They can be a powerful tool for providing basic income security and closing gender gaps in pension coverage.
And providing these benefits is affordable even in low-income countries. Mauritius, Bolivia and Botswana have proven this and studies estimate that in most sub-Saharan African countries such schemes would cost only around 1% of GDP. The benefits are enormous and can transcend generations. In South Africa, widely available social pensions have not only reduced poverty among older people, but also led to improvements in long-term nutrition and school attendance among the children they live with.
Affordable care services for the elderly are just as important as pensions. Yet, these services are still rudimentary even in affluent countries, which reflects the fact that women’s unpaid elderly care work is still taken for granted. It’s essential that we assume collective responsibility for the care of our elderly by expanding support mechanisms and public services. This will ensure the rights of both the carers and the cared-for, with options ranging from home-based care to day care, residential and nursing homes.
Political commitment will be required to put these measures in place as well as a significant investment of resources. But relying on women’s unpaid care work whilst relegating them to poverty in old age is no longer an acceptable alternative and never should have been.
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