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Human Rights Council holds panel discussion on the rights of older women and their economic empowerment

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28 June 2019

MORNING

Hears Statements from Dignitaries from Cameroon, Austria and Azerbaijan

GENEVA (28 June 2019) - The Human Rights Council this morning held the second part of its annual discussion on the human rights of women, with a panel on the rights of older women and their economic empowerment.  The Council also heard addresses by Mbella Mbella Lejeune, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cameroon, Alexander Schallenberg, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria, and Fuad Huseynov, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons of Azerbaijan.

Mr. Lejeune said that attacks carried out by the terrorist group Boko Haram that had occurred in the last few weeks had underscored the need to remain vigilant and redouble efforts.  Regarding the situation in the north west and south west of Cameroon, it should be remembered that Cameroon was a victim in these parts of its territory, because of criminal and destabilizing acts carried out by secessionist groups that used terrorist methods, which had created, inter alia, refugees and internally displaced peoples, and had destroyed the region’s economic fabric.  The Government was pursuing efforts for a return to normalcy in the north west and south west, and dialogue had always been given pride of place in its agenda.

Mr. Schallenberg said multilateralism was hard work with no easy wins, adding that the need to compromise might be hard to sell to a domestic audience.  But unilateralism, isolationism, or multilateralism “à la carte” would not solve any of the complex challenges that the world faced, he stressed and reaffirmed that there was simply no alternative to cooperation.  Turning to three central points of what Austria stood for in the Council, the Minister underlined the universality of human rights which derived from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person. 

Mr. Huseynov addressed the Council on the issue of internally displaced persons, saying that Azerbaijan was home to one of the highest numbers of internally displaced persons in the world.  The number of people who had been forced to leave their homes had reached 70 million, of which 41 million were internally displaced persons, double the number when the United Nations Guiding Principles on internal displacement had been adopted 20 years ago.  Echoing the words of Secretary-General, Mr. Huseynov stressed that the problem was not refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, but conflicts, poverty, and persecution that had forced them to leave their homes. 

At the beginning of the meeting, the Council held a panel discussion on the rights of older women and their economic empowerment, part of the annual discussion on the rights of women.  The first part of the discussion was held on 27 June and can be found here

Michelle Bachelet, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said that, while many countries were experiencing a youth boom, the global population aged 60 and over was growing even faster. Older women contributed to societies in multiple roles, as workers, carers, volunteers, advisors and leaders.  They were often independent, active and productive members of society; almost a quarter of women over the age of 60 worked, many in farming and primarily in the informal sector.  And yet, older women faced not just the burden of age discrimination but also the consequences of deep, wide-ranging, and life-long gender discrimination, culminating in an old age that was likely to be destitute, isolated and vulnerable to abuse.  All must combat ageism and prejudice against older women and men, concluded the High Commissioner.

Monica Ferros, Director of the United Nations Population Fund Office in Geneva and panel moderator, remarked that population ageing was one of the most important contemporary trends that was happening all around the world and was impacting all societies.  However, women were still at a high risk of ending in poverty due to discrimination accumulated during their life course, including due to patriarchal structures in many societies.  While their contribution was indispensable to societies, it was often invisible and women were often seen as an economic burden.

The panellists were Idah Nambeya, Senior Advisor to Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, Stephen Lewis Foundation; Andrew Byrnes, Professor of International Law, University of New South Wales; and Marion Bethel, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women.

In the ensuing discussion, speakers said that population ageing was one of the most significant global phenomena of the twenty-first century and a challenge that societies must urgently face.  Welcoming the focus on the economic empowerment of older women, they stressed that at the heart of the issue was not only financial security, but other aspects of life, including autonomy and independence.  Insufficient gendered research and analysis on those issues impeded effective policy response and furthermore, older persons were often overlooked in national and international legislation, leading to a limited and fragmented response to the older persons’ human rights situation.

Speaking in the discussion were the following States: Angola (on behalf of the African Group); Chile (on behalf of a group of countries); European Union; Argentina (on behalf of a group of countries); Lithuania (on behalf of a group of countries); Greece; Israel; Russian Federation; Qatar; Australia; Czech Republic; Slovenia; ; Venezuela; Thailand; Ecuador; Lesotho; Singapore; Bahamas; China; Iraq; United Kingdom; UN-Women; India; Indonesia;.

The following civil society organizations also took the floor: Commission on Human Rights of the Philippines; International Longevity Center Global Alliance, Ltd. (In a joint statement with Make Mothers Matter; Association of Former International Civil Servants for Development; Verein Sudwind Entwicklungspolitik; International Association of Gerontology and Geriatrics; International Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse; International Federation on Ageing; National Alliance of Women's Organizations; Widows Rights International; and AGE Platform Europe); HelpAge International; Rencontre Africaine pour la défense des droits de l'homme; Khiam Rehabilitation Center for Victims of Torture; Americans for Democracy & Human Rights in Bahrain Inc; Association of World Citizens; Health and Environment Program (HEP); and Verein Südwind Entwicklungspolitik;

The Human Rights Council will next continue its clustered interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on violence against women, and on trafficking in persons.  It will then start an interactive dialogue with the Special Rapporteurs on extreme poverty, and on internally displaced persons.

Annual Full-Day Debate on the Human Rights of Women

Statement by the High Commissioner for Human Rights

MICHELLE BACHELET, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, said the ageing of societies was a global issue that should be celebrated.  While many countries were experiencing a youth boom, the global population aged 60 and over was growing even faster.  This trend impacted every corner of the world.  By 2050, one in six people would be over 65 and in Europe one in four, while globally the number of people aged 80 or over was projected to triple.  Despite this new reality, the rights of older persons, and particularly older women, were sorely neglected by policy makers and even the human rights community.  The panel today, High Commissioner Bachelet said, was an important opportunity to begin correcting those failures of the past and give due recognition to the rights and contributions of older women.

Older women, Ms. Bachelet continued, contributed to societies in multiple roles, as workers, carers, volunteers, advisors and leaders.  They were often independent, active and productive members of society; almost a quarter of women over the age of 60 worked, many in farming and primarily in the informal sector.  In Sub-Saharan Africa, 42 per cent of women over 65 years of age participated in the labour force.  Many engaged in unpaid domestic and care work without which societies could barely function, and grandmothers were critical in childcare and the care of older persons.  In Japan, almost 70 per cent of the women who provided care for older persons were themselves over the age of 60. 

And yet, older women faced not just the burden of age discrimination but also the consequences of deep, wide ranging, and life-long gender discrimination, culminating in an old age that was likely to be destitute, isolated, and vulnerable to abuse.  Protecting the rights of older women involved protecting the rights of all women and girls, and eliminating discrimination in education, at work, in pay, and in pregnancy and childcare; it involved eliminating gender-based violence and harassment, ensuring access to reproductive health care, and fighting for gender equality, including in marriage and family.  All must combat ageism and prejudice against older women and men, concluded the High Commissioner.

Presentations by the Moderator and Panellists

MÓNICA FERROS, Director of the United Nations Population Fund Office in Geneva and panel moderator, remarked that the discussion today was very timely and critical, and would explore important issues such as the importance of the promotion and protection of the human rights of older women, and eliminating discrimination during the life course of women and girls.  The stage had been set, Ms. Ferros said, as population ageing was one of the most important contemporary trends that was happening all around the world and was impacting all societies.  Population ageing was truly a triumph of development, and a unique longevity dividend.  However, women were still at a high risk of ending in poverty due to discrimination accumulated during their life course, including due to patriarchal structures in many societies.  While their contribution was indispensable to societies, it was often invisible and women were often seen as an economic burden.

IDAH NAMBEYA, Senior Advisor to Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, Stephen Lewis Foundation, stressed that African grandmothers were at the heart of the AIDS pandemic: they were the ones who lost their children to the disease and stepped in to care for more than 15 million children orphaned by AIDS.  They were often excluded, discriminated against, and stigmatized.  The Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign was a dynamic global movement of solidarity to raise awareness and funds in support of African grandmothers.  They were experiencing depletion of their resources in every sense: economic, emotional and physical, because of the challenges they faced in struggling to support orphans and vulnerable children.  Only a few countries with a high prevalence of HIV/AIDS were providing pensions or other forms of financial support to older women and much of their work was done without compensation, as unpaid volunteers.

ANDREW BYRNES, Professor of International Law, University of New South Wales, drew attention to the relatively low level of visibility of older persons in the international human rights system, which he said was due to the conceptual frameworks applied, lack of specific norms, the nature of the expertise of human rights bodies, competing priorities, and lack of time and resources.  A focused and holistic approach to the human rights of older persons that could be taken up by States was therefore lacking.  Emphasizing the importance of an age perspective – age was becoming an ever more important category of social analysis to understand how older persons were denied their rights in older age - Mr. Byrnes stressed that addressing the problems that older women faced in relation to economic exclusion could only be holistically done by adding an independent, comprehensive and coherent age-based rights framework to the existing international human rights system.  There was therefore a need to adopt a new convention on the human rights of older persons, for ubiquitous and iniquitous ageism was at the core of discrimination against older persons.  Such a treaty would have the same transformative potential as had the treaties for the rights of the child, discrimination against women, or the rights of persons with disabilities.    

MARION BETHEL, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, emphasized that economic empowerment and the quality of life of older women was dependent on the earlier phases and stages of their life cycle.  Stereotyping as a girl child at home and school, lack of decent work, participation in the informal labour market, unpaid care work throughout girls’ and women’s lives, interrupted work or career patterns and maternity – all played a significant role in determining women’s opportunities for economic empowerment throughout their life cycle, and especially at an older age.  Older women who were members of minority, ethnic or indigenous groups, who were widowed or divorced, internally displaced or stateless, and refugee women, often experienced a higher degree of discrimination.  States had an obligation to treat women and men equally, both in law and in fact.  This entailed repealing discriminatory laws, enacting laws that protected older women on the basis of equality, and bringing about an actual and lived experience of equality by older women.

Discussion

Speakers said that population ageing was one of the most significant global phenomena of the twenty-first century and a challenge that societies urgently must face.  Welcoming the focus on the economic empowerment of older women, they stressed that at the heart of the issue was not only financial security, but other aspects of life, including autonomy and independence.  Insufficient gendered research and analysis on those issues impeded effective policy response and furthermore, older persons were often overlooked in national and international legislation, leading to a limited and fragmented response to the older persons’ human rights situation.

Older women constituted an invaluable asset to society at all levels and played a vital role in all aspects of the social and economic development of States.  Still, they faced multiple challenges on a daily basis.  They were often discriminated against on the basis of age, exposed to violence, abuses and even financial exploitation, socially excluded, and were often without any form of adequate care and financially sustainable pensions.  In this context, speakers asked what could be done to increase the visibility of issues that older women faced and what could be the specific role that technical cooperation and capacity-building could play in enhancing and sustaining the substantial economic activity of older persons in many sectors, including through the provision of lifelong skills. 

When discrimination based on age and sex intersected, they produced unique forms of discrimination that uniquely disadvantaged older women, including in relation to work.  Age discrimination was still legal in many countries; age limits on education and training reduced older women’s employability, mandatory retirement ages excluded them from the workforce, and age limits on financial services limited their financial independence.  Social protection systems, including social pensions, had a crucial role to play in addressing the risks associated with old age and in realizing the right of older people to social security.  However, contributory pension systems tended to exacerbate gender inequality – in one country, the gender pay gap was eight per cent, among the lowest on the continent, but when it came to pensions, the gap rose to 22 per cent.  How could the pay gap in pensions be further reduced in the coming years and decades?

Speakers noted that the debate was ongoing on whether to adopt a new instrument to tackle the many real problems that older women faced or whether much could be achieved already by making better use of the existing instruments.  Many urged the adoption of such an instrument to define the normative elements of the rights of older persons and outline the duties of States to ensure women would have an equal opportunity to access education and employment opportunities, recognize that often unpaid caregiving and domestic work was mostly undertaken by women, and to enable healthy ageing through supportive and gender-sensitive institutions.

Concluding Remarks

MÓNICA FERROS, Director of the United Nations Population Fund Office in Geneva and panel moderator, thanked those present for their questions, noting that some of them were thought-provoking and others were technical.

IDAH NAMBEYA, Senior Advisor to Grandmothers to Grandmothers Campaign, Stephen Lewis Foundation, said that in her experience, the first thing that needed to be done was to recognize that grandmothers existed.  On capacity building, all areas were relevant for older persons, including education and skills development.  She emphasized that discrimination must be eliminated, and older persons needed to be included, accounted for, respected, and protected.

ANDREW BYRNES, Professor of International Law, University of New South Wales, said it was important to note that the rights discussed were related to broader notions, including women’s participation in political life.  On pensions and social support, the financing issue raised the question of the fairness of tax systems.  It was important to address how the increase in female participation in the labour force would impact pensions calculi -- it may change what was possible.  There were still gaps in data, and data could be used in more innovative ways, he noted.  Data on violence against women was lacking for older persons, for instance, as they were often lumped together in a broad category, “60 years and older.”  To move on, the application of existing standards could be strengthened.  This implied ensuring that the treaty bodies had the resources to properly address these issues.

MARION BETHEL, Member of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women, agreed that it was important to make grandmothers more visible.  The pension issue was also very important.  It was important for the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to have non-governmental organizations focus on these issues, as their perspective on the rights of older women would be useful.  Shadow reports were very helpful, and it would be useful if they also addressed the whole complexity of the lives of older women.  Transformative equality was better than a merely legal approach, she stated.  Literacy was a lifespan issue, thus, there was still time in older age to get literacy and digital training.  It was also important to look at older women as repositories of culture and history, and it was important to provide them with the opportunity to express themselves and to foster cultural engagement on their part.

MÓNICA FERROS, Director of the United Nations Population Fund Office in Geneva and panel moderator, said the conversation had focused on discrimination, but also on empowerment.  Engagement was needed upstream, but downstream work was also very important, including monitoring.  Data was necessary to foresee issues and adequately prepare to address them.  She described the issues discussed today as “an unfinished business”.  “We know what needs to be done,” she said, calling on those present to mobilize to deliver.

Statements by Dignitaries

MBELLA MBELLA LEJEUNE, Minister for Foreign Affairs of Cameroon, said the world faced plagues such as migration crises that continued to claim thousands of lives, violent extremism linked to the persistence of terrorism, environmental problems, and the crisis of multilateralism, to name a few.  Member States had to confer with each other to find solutions to these challenges that went beyond the individual capacities of States.  The promotion and protection of economic, social, cultural rights remained one of the core values for designing national policies, which included the Growth and Employment Strategy Paper – a vital document that emphasized the acceleration of growth, formal job creation and poverty reduction.  Turning to the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, as well as the right to information, Mr. Lejeune said that today’s world reminded that these rights must be exercised in a responsible manner to ensure the right to privacy; the fight against fake news; and the ban on hateful messages that could lead to extreme violence, amongst others. 

Attacks carried out by the terrorist group Boko Haram that had occurred in the last few weeks had underscored the need to remain vigilant and redouble efforts in this fight.  Regarding the situation in the north west and south west of Cameroon, it should be remembered that Cameroon was a victim in these parts of its territory, because of criminal and destabilizing acts carried out by secessionist groups that used terrorist methods, which had created, inter alia, refugees and internally displaced peoples, and had destroyed the region’s economic fabric.  The Government was pursuing efforts for a return to normalcy in the north west and south west, and dialogue had always been given pride of place in its agenda.  In any event, the prevailing situation in these regions, while worrying internally, was not likely to threaten international peace and security.  The Government was tirelessly pursuing its efforts towards a Cameroonian-Cameroonian solution, but also needed the support of its partners to accompany it in the way of appeasement, the preservation of its unity and its territorial integrity.  He reiterated the commitment of Cameroon with regards to the promotion and protection of human rights.

ALEXANDER SCHALLENBERG, Federal Minister for Europe, Integration and Foreign Affairs of Austria, stressed that the promotion and protection of human rights was and remained a clear priority for Austria.  As a member of the Human Rights Council, Austria would actively engage on a number of important initiatives, he said, specifically mentioning the impact of new and emerging technologies on human rights, the fight against corruption, the human rights of internally displaced persons, and others.  Multilateralism, he said, was hard work with no easy wins; the need to compromise might be hard to sell to a domestic audience.  But unilateralism, isolationism, or multilateralism “à la carte” would not solve any of the complex challenges the world faced, he stressed, and reaffirmed that there was simply no alternative to cooperation.  Turning to three central points of what Austria stood for in the Council, the Minister underlined the universality of human rights which derived from the dignity and worth inherent in the human person.  “Denying someone their human rights simply meant denying their humanity,” he said. 

Secondly, the Minister stressed the need for all members of the Council to improve cooperation with the human rights system, which States themselves had created.  States had created the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the treaty bodies, the Universal Periodic Review, and the Special Procedures to address compliance with the clear standards to measure their respect for human rights, and States needed to let them do their work and carry out their mandates.  Finally, Mr. Schallenberg stressed that accountability for human rights violations was key for conflict prevention and for sustaining peace.  In this context, he applauded the Council for establishing independent investigations, for example in the Syrian Arab Republic, Yemen and Myanmar; their reports should not collect dust on a shelf, but be used to hold perpetrators to account.  Austria, the Minister said in conclusion, would remain a reliable partner in defence of the universality of human rights, in cooperation with the human rights system, and in support of accountability.

FUAD HUSEYNOV, Deputy Chairman of the State Committee for Affairs of Refugees and Internally Displaced Persons of Azerbaijan, addressed the Council on the issue of internally displaced persons, saying that Azerbaijan was home to one of the highest numbers of internally displaced persons in the world.  The number of people who had been forced to leave their homes had reached 70 million, of which 41 million were internally displaced persons, double the number when the United Nations Guiding Principles on internal displacement had been adopted 20 years ago.  Echoing the words of the Secretary-General, Mr. Huseynov stressed that the problem was not refugees, migrants and internally displaced persons, but conflicts, poverty, and persecution that had forced them to leave their homes.  Stressing the importance of addressing the situation of protracted conflicts and protracted displacement, he underlined the critical role that the Council could play in this matter.

Displacement in Azerbaijan was a consequence of the ongoing military aggression and occupation of Nagorno Karabah by Armenia, he recalled; such a particular national experience explained Azerbaijan’s particular sensitivity and understanding of the phenomenon of internal displacement.  The Government was taking important steps to alleviate the suffering of its internally displaced persons; it was working to ensure the temporary improvement of living conditions of internally displaced persons until a political solution to the conflict was found.  The legal framework for the protection of refugees and internally displaced persons had been strengthened with the adoption of 54 laws, including on their status, on social protection, and citizenship for refugees from Armenia.  Notwithstanding the measures that Azerbaijan was taking to alleviate the situation of those vulnerable groups, the only durable solution was the settlement of the Nagorno Karabah conflict as a precondition for the realization of the right to return in a safe and dignified manner.

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For use of the information media; not an official record

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