Shedding Light on Violence against Older Women

Article Date

14 June 2016

Article Author

Jennifer McCleary-Sills (ICRW), Cailin Crockett (Administration for Community Living, US Department of Health and Human Services)

Media Contact

Anne McPherson

Vice President, Global Communications email [email protected]

Tomorrow marks World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, an important opportunity to recognize the interpersonal violence impacting nearly one in 20 older adults worldwide. Nearly one quarter of the world’s women are age 50 and older and they account for more than half of the global population age 60 and older. Yet we know very little about what happens in their lives after age 49. This is due to the fact that globally comparable data sets, such as the Demographic Health Surveys (DHS), collect data only from women of reproductive age (15 to 49 years-old). As a result, we have limited information about older women’s sexual health, their economic activity and their experiences of violence.

As a result of this evidence gap, the development community is missing an opportunity to bring more attention to the lived experiences of older women, and to the specific forms of abuse and violence they face. It also means older women are not often given proper credit for being the change agents and drivers of development that they truly are.

Most of this violence occurs in people’s homes and in their communities, and can have serious consequences for their physical and mental health. What is known as “elder abuse” doesn’t distinguish between the differing forms of violence experienced by older men and women, nor does it recognize that older women are uniquely vulnerable to abuse, including intimate partner and sexual violence from non-partners. As women enter older age, they can become vulnerable to acts of violence from a wider range of possible perpetrators, including intimate partners or spouses, family members and caregivers. Without measuring this violence as a distinct development challenge, we cannot understand the full magnitude of its effects on the individual women who experience it or on their families and communities.

If we began to measure this violence, what would we find? The limited research on violence against older women that is currently available comes predominantly from developed countries, but still offers some useful insights. A recent study in five European Union countries found that 28 percent of women 60 years of age and older reported experiencing some form of abuse in the previous year- this included sexual and physical violence as well as other forms of abuse. As is the case with younger women, the most common perpetrator of this violence is a spouse or intimate partner. Recent research from the United States revealed that aging does not protect women against sexual violence and that these crimes are almost never reported to the police- non-partner sexual assaults committed against women age 65 and older are reported 15.5 percent less frequently than sexual assaults committed against younger women (between the age of 25 and 49). There is also an unfortunate array of harmful practices that disproportionately affect older women, such as widow burning, wife inheritance and forms of violence and stigma related to accusations of witchcraft.

All these forms of violence stem jointly from strict gender norms and culturally embedded values that place a premium on youth and women’s role as child-bearers—in some cases, making harmful assumptions that older women are “useless” once they are past reproductive age. This creates an overlapping vulnerability to violence fueled by both ageism and sexism.

In recognition of the significant gaps in development policy and practice with regard to violence experienced by older women, we wrote a brief examining the evidence base, data needs and key entry points for addressing this issue. The brief underscores that integrating the prevention of and response to violence against older women into development projects requires an understanding of the legal, social and epidemiological context of this violence as it relates to development programming. This brief is the latest in a series for the Violence Against Women and Girls (VAWG) Resource Guide, which provides guidance to help development professionals initiate, integrate and innovate effective solutions to prevent and respond to VAWG across all sectors.

 Fortunately, the new era of global development policies ushered in with the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows promise for greater inclusion of older women in the movement to end VAWG, through a commitment to “leave no one behind”. Moving beyond the age-limited sampling of the DHS and similar models, SDG 5 indicators on VAWG will measure the prevalence of intimate partner violence and non-partner sexual violence among those aged 15 and older, thus continuing to measure experiences of violence for women beyond the age of 49. This is a huge step forward, because we know what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get counted.

Now it’s time for the global development community to capitalize on the momentum offered by the SDGs by: 1) investing in expanded data collection and building the capacity of national statistical commissions to collect data on women older than 49; 2) including older women’s voices and needs in national plans of action on VAWG and strategies to remedy gender disparities; and 3) training providers to break down ageist biases that can impede older survivors’ access to essential services.

The very first step, however, is raising awareness about this under-researched issue and bringing greater visibility to older women and their influential role in global development, as well as the unique risks they face. Help us start this conversation now, on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day.

Download the brief on violence against LBT women. For the entire series on Violence Against Women and Girls, visit the VAWG Resource Guide website. This series is a joint venture between the World Bank Group, the Global Women’s Institute at George Washington University, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the International Center for Research on Women. Follow the authors on Twitter @jmcsills and @C_A_Crockett. Follow the Resource Guide at #VAWGuide.