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Annual full-day discussion on the human rights of women - Panel 2: The rights of older women and their economic empowerment

41st session of the Human Rights Council

Opening statement by Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

28 June 2019

President of the Council,
Distinguished panellists,
Excellencies,
Colleagues and friends,

The ageing of our societies is a global issue – and one that we should celebrate.  Thanks to progress in health and greater peace, people today are living longer, and actively contributing to society.  

While many countries are experiencing a youth boom, the global population aged 60 and over is growing even faster. And contrary to popular perception, this trend impacts every corner of the globe. The latest World Population Prospects Report, issued last week, estimates that by 2050, one in six people will be over 65, up from one in 11 this year.  Regions where the share of the population aged 65 years or over is projected to double between 2019 and 2050 include Northern Africa and Western Asia, Central and Southern Asia, Eastern and Southern Eastern Asia, and Latin America and the Caribbean.  By 2050, one in four people living in Europe and Northern America could be aged 65 or over – and globally, the number of people aged 80 years or over is projected to triple.  

Despite this new reality, the rights of older persons – and particularly older women – are sorely neglected by policy makers, and even the human rights community. Today’s panel is an important opportunity to begin correcting those failures of the past, and to give due recognition to the rights and contributions of older women.

Older women contribute to our societies in multiple roles, as workers, carers, volunteers, advisors and leaders.  They are often independent, active and productive members of society.

Almost a quarter of women over the age of 60 work, many of them in farming, and primarily in the informal sector. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 42 % of women over 65 years of age participate in the labour force.

Many older women also engage in unpaid domestic and care work – jobs not accounted for in the formal economy, but without which, many societies could barely function. 

Much of this work involves childcare. Grandmothers look after children while their parents work – and may become sole-caregivers for children left behind by their parents in cases of migration, or death.

Older women also provide care for other older persons. In Japan, data from 2016 indicates 69.9% of the women who provide care for older members of the family are themselves over the age of 60.

They are also likely to engage in voluntary work for the community. In 2011, about a third of older men and women in the Netherlands and the UK were involved in voluntary work. In Tanzania, studies have found that older women frequently help with mentoring and conflict reduction at community level. 

And yet older women face do 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 is likely to be destitute, isolated and vulnerable to abuse.

Those who have been excluded from education, vocational training or formal work opportunities will not benefit from social protections such as pensions. Discriminatory property laws mean that many women also do not own land, or even their own home. Moreover, they are likely to suffer very restricted or no access to credit. 

Excellencies, 

Protecting the rights of older women involves protecting the rights of all women and girls.

We need measures to eliminate discrimination against girls in education, and improved access for women to gainful work and life-long learning.

Discrimination against women at work – including with respect to pay equity, gender-based violence and harassment, and discrimination related to pregnancy or child-care – must be eradicated. 

We must fight for equality in marriage and in the family, including equality in property rights and legal capacity, and more equal gender roles between women and men in the family.

Women and girls’ enjoyment of sexual and reproductive health and rights must be promoted and protected, so that lack of them will not hinder their access to education, employment and livelihood.

Social protection systems, which provide for maternity and child care, and ensure adequate living standards for people living with disability and older people, need to be adopted. 

We need public support for care services that protect the rights of those who need care, and those providing the care.
And we must combat ageism and prejudice against older women and men.

I hope this panel will contribute to greater recognition of the profound contributions made by older women, as well as to the strengthened protection of their rights.

Thank you.