Published on Voices

Violence against older women is widespread but untallied

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Along with partners across the globe, today we mark World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. This UN observance has since 2011 called attention to the often invisible abuse, violence, and neglect experienced by older people—mostly women—around the world.

Violence against older women is widespread but mostly hidden. It occurs in numerous, often intersecting ways, inflicted by a variety of perpetrators including intimate partners or spouses, family members, caregivers both in homes and institutional settings, and community members. Yet reliable, comprehensive data on how often it occurs—among whom, by whom, and what its associated personal and economic costs are—don’t exist, despite research showing that trauma induced by abuse across the lifespan has a devastating impact on older women.

The World Health Organization (WHO) regards as "elder abuse" harm to a person aged 60 or older, through any single or repeated act, including physical or sexual violence, emotional or financial abuse, and, neglect and abandonment. Accumulated gender disparities experienced over a lifetime means women are more vulnerable to violence, as they are to poverty, in their later years. But "elder abuse" lacks a specific gender lens and excludes women beyond reproductive age but not yet considered "old" in their specific cultural context.

Demographics alone suggest this phenomenon demands greater attention:

The global population of people 60 and older will more than double from 542 million in 1995 to about 1.2 billion in 2025 and 2 billion in 2050, according to UN estimates. Between 4-6 percent of elderly people are known to have experienced some form of maltreatment at home. The  majority of the older population will remain women living in low- and middle-income countries, outnumbering men as they age. In 2015, women accounted for 54 percent of the global population aged 60 or older and 61 percent of those aged 80 or older.

Our Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Resource Guide—a collaboration among World Bank Group, Global Women's Institute at George Washington University, Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Center for Research on Women—provides guidance for development professionals on how to initiate, integrate, and innovate to prevent and respond to violence against women and girls across all sectors. Our newest brief focuses specifically on women survivors aged 50 and older, in part because we have so little data on women over 49 globally.

Integrating prevention of and response to violence against older women in development projects, it argues, requires an understanding of how age and gender discrimination together make older survivors less visible and more vulnerable to multiple forms of violence. And older populations are vital yet often overlooked in development policies, programs, and research. Based on research and insights from around the world, our brief urges development practitioners to expand their work addressing violence to include older women. We offer promising practices and entry points at the institutional, community, and policy levels.
The economic contributions of older women, as paid workers and unpaid caregivers, suggests that families, communities, and whole economies suffer lost productivity resulting from abuse. The number of women over 50 in formal employment has risen steadily since the 1990s, for example, while most older women in low- and middle-income countries engage in agricultural labor as their primary means of income.

In both developed and less developed economies, older women are more likely than their male counterparts to live in poverty—which, as our brief highlights, increases their vulnerability to violence and curbs their ability to leave an abusive partner or household. Even where women are legally entitled to own or inherit land, further, they do so at rates far below those of men—and in largely agrarian developing countries, widows, often older women, can be denied equal land and inheritance rights following a husband’s death. Some communities use violence, threats, and intimidation to drive them away from their property, often accusing them of witchcraft—a harmful practice impacting older women and rarely addressed in development discourse.

The Sustainable Development Goals—promising to "leave no one behind"—will measure progress towards ending VAWG by collecting data for women and girls ages 15 and older. Development agencies and their partners should follow suit and expand programming accordingly. World Elder Abuse Awareness Day is a perfect time to start.

Download the brief on violence against older women—or access the series the whole VAWG Resource Guide.


Diana J. Arango

Sr. Gender-Based Violence and Development Specialist, World Bank Group

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