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Pandemic exposes ageism and age discrimination in society, says UN expert

30 September 2021

International Day of Older Persons, 1 October 2021

GENEVA (30 September 2021) – On the occasion of the International Day of Older Persons on 1 October, Claudia Mahler, the UN Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons, calls for urgent action against ageism and age discrimination. She issues the following statement:

“The COVID-19 pandemic starkly revealed widespread ageism and age discrimination against older persons. As explained by the Independent Expert in her newest report to the Human Rights Council (A/HRC/48/53), ageism means stereotypes, prejudice and/or discriminatory actions or practices against older persons that are based on their chronological age or on a perception that the person is ‘old.’ Typically, this is reflected in negative generalizations about older persons as frail, averse to change, unproductive, and in need of protection and costly health and care services. During the pandemic, ageist comments and hate speech were ripe with older persons being blamed as the reasons for lockdowns and labelled as vulnerable and burdens to societies.

Ageism and age discrimination violate the human rights of older persons and exacerbate inequalities in different ways, including leaving older persons behind in our increasingly digitalized world. For example, ageist assumptions make it more difficult for older persons to get equal access to medical care. The use of telemedicine and remote technology sharply increased during the pandemic without equivalent attention to improving digital literacy and access to digital technology, infrastructure and devices. This aggravated inequalities in the enjoyment of the right to health by older persons owing to the existing digital divide and exclusion from information related to the pandemic and health care when provided only in digital or non-accessible formats.

Older persons are the most diverse age group and multiple intersections with other grounds of discrimination amplify the effects of ageism and age discrimination.

At the intersection between ageism and sexism, for example, older women face unique forms of inequality and discrimination. They are often expected to continue carrying out caregiving roles while neglecting their own well-being, and then are perceived as unproductive and a burden when requiring care themselves. In many countries, women are excluded from cervical cancer screening programmes past a certain age although research indicates that incidence and mortality remain high in older women. Moreover, the digital divide is particularly pronounced among older women due to educational and societal reasons, further weakening access to care, support and services during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Global Report on Ageism released by the World Health Organization earlier this year found that every second person is ageist against older persons. High prevalence of ageism combined with the harsh lessons learned during the pandemic must be a global wake-up call to act now to combat ageism and eliminate age discrimination. The Independent Expert calls on States to close the protection gap in the international legal human rights framework and to ensure protection from discrimination on the basis of age through effective legislation and policies as well as by designing strategies to counter ageism as part of all strategies related to ageing and older persons.”


Ms. Claudia Mahler (Austria) was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council as Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in May 2020. She has been working for the German Institute for Human Rights as a senior researcher in the field of economic, social and cultural rights since 2010. She was also a visiting professor at the Alice Salomon Hochschule in 2020-2021. From 2001 to 2009, Ms. Mahler conducted research at the Human Rights Centre of the University of Potsdam where her main fields were in human rights education, minority rights and the law of asylum. In 2000, she received her doctoral degree and was appointed as Vice President of the Human Rights Commission for Tyrol and Vorarlberg.

The Special Rapporteurs and Independent Experts are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity.

For more information and media requests, please contact Barbora Zamrska ([email protected]) or Hee-Kyong Yoo ([email protected]) or email [email protected].

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts please contact: Mr. Jeremy Laurence, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+41 22 917 9383 / [email protected])

Follow news related to the UN’s independent human rights experts on Twitter @UN_SPExperts.

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