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Why older women’s economic empowerment matters for international development

A guest blog by Kate Horstead, Policy Advisor at Age International

Kate Horstead

Imagine for a moment you are a woman reaching older age in a low or middle-income country. What resources would you have to draw on, and how would others perceive you? What do you spend your time doing, and how does this affect you and others?

The reality is that just as women shoulder the lion’s share of unpaid care work throughout their lives, they often continue to do so in older age. In addition, a lack of income security – due to accumulated gender inequalities combined with age discrimination – forces them into insecure and undesirable work.

Welcome attention is finally being given to women’s economic empowerment, and the call to ‘recognise, reduce and redistribute care’ has started to enter the mind-sets of those with the power to influence. However, older women are largely absent from this discussion; while we challenge gender inequality, there is a risk that older women will not see the benefits of progress, or receive the support they need. And if older women and their critical work continue to be overlooked, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) – a series of goals and targets committing all governments to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure prosperity for all by 2030 – will not succeed.

This is important not least because the majority of the world’s older women today live in low and middle-income countries, and these numbers are increasing substantially with 20 percent of the world’s population expected to be over the age of 60 by 2050.

Older women risk having their health and wellbeing compromised by the work they do – unpaid and paid – which props up their households, communities and economies. This does not have to be the case.

The invisible but vital work of older women

New global research commissioned by Age International was launched this week by the Overseas Development Institute revealing the significant contribution that older women make to their households, communities and economies. Older women globally are on average doing 4.3 hours unpaid care and domestic work a day. Increasingly, they are joining the paid workforce – with roles as varied as cleaning, brick-breaking, petty trade, agriculture and livestock rearing.

The gender inequalities and patriarchal power structures that disadvantage women throughout their whole lives do not go away; their impacts accumulate and can have specific consequences for older women. In later life, women still do more than twice the amount of unpaid care work of their male peers. In addition, they often face additional discrimination due to their age.

Aselefech is 70 years old and lives in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. She cares full-time for two grandchildren, her husband is sick, and her son has a mental health condition. They rely on the small amount of income she makes from spinning.

‘In the morning [before taking the children to school] I give Meskerem (11) a piece of bread and share a piece with Mekedos (7). In the evening I bake bread or injera with stew, if there is enough food[…] My son makes it difficult to sleep. […] I am worried about the kids. I am worried about my husband.’

Aselefech has health problems of her own, but she doesn’t dare to go into hospital for fear of what will happen to her family. ‘If I was not here, there would be no-one to look after them.’

The phrases ‘working age’ and ‘dependency ratio’ are used liberally when deciding on responses to gender inequality, with the focus often being on formal labour force participation. But these phrases mean nothing for women like Aselefech. She is beyond what would be considered ‘working age’ by economic definitions. Although she would be categorised as ‘dependent’ due to her age, her family depends entirely on her.

Aselefech’s story is not unusual. In all the countries we work in, we see older women juggling low paid, informal work with caring for their grandchildren, for their spouses, for community members. Often they are primary carers. But lower access to pensions – due in part to their unpaid care work not being recognised – mean that they have to work to survive.

The reasons older women do unpaid care work vary. Sometimes, it is out of necessity, to free up younger family members to earn income, or because their own children have passed away leaving an orphaned grandchild. Often, it is due to gendered norms that persist into older age. Unpaid care also offers emotional fulfilment, but without support to carry the strain, it can be overwhelming.

Older women’s labour offers unbridled benefits for their families. But older women themselves experience physical, mental and psychological effects. They report feeling overwhelmed, stressed and exhausted by their responsibilities. Often they are carrying out this work with multiple chronic conditions or disability. Lifting and carrying can cause or exacerbate health conditions. The double or triple workload they carry also squeezes their rest and leisure time.

Supporting older women’s rights

Older women, like everyone else, have rights to social protection, to decent work, to health and to rest. However, currently there is not adequate support to ensure they can claim these rights.

While traditionally, older women relied on informal structures of support from their families and the community, these structures are shifting. When they receive financial support, it is often not enough to meet their costs. Older women can also face barriers to receiving appropriate healthcare. All of these challenges can increase their workload, and reduce their autonomy over how to live their lives. Older women need to be able to make choices about what kind of work to do, and how much of it.

It is crucial that support is available for women at every stage of their lives, including older age, regardless of their contributions. Ensuring access to social protection such as universal social pensions, decent work, care infrastructure that supports both carers of all ages and those in their care, and inclusion in research and data, will enable older women to claim their rights and continue to do the things that matter to them.

Through the SDGs, the UK Government has pledged to Leave No One Behind, and recognises that gender equality and women’s economic empowerment is key to achieving this. Older women must be explicitly included in the UK Government’s existing commitments on women’s economic empowerment, and supported to make meaningful choices about their own lives.

Visit Age International’s website to see our new briefing paper.

You can find the full report on the ODI’s website.

Follow the conversation on Twitter @Age_Int #olderwomenmatter

Kate Horstead is Policy Advisor at Age International

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