Making older people visible in emergencies

Today our sister organisation, HelpAge International, won the world’s largest humanitarian prize – the Hilton Humanitarian Prize – in recognition of “its work to alleviate human suffering”.  This is a timely award on the day we present our vision for older people affected by crises and disasters in Age UK’s Agenda for Later Life report.

Older women hit by severe flooding in Pakistan.Age UK believes that people in later life must receive the protection and assistance they need and deserve following humanitarian emergencies.  HelpAge International does a tremendous job ensuring that the interests of older people in developing countries are represented and their contributions recognised.  

And this is imperative because the world is getting older; more and more civilians are dying in conflict; and natural disasters are becoming more frequent and deadly.  In fact:

  • The most rapid increase in the 60+ population is occurring in the developing world
  • Since 1945, 90 per cent of casualties in conflict have been civilians
  • Climate-releated disasters are increasing: the first four years of the 21st century saw an average of 326 disasters a year – a doubling in twenty years.

Older people are the invisible casualties of conflict and climate change.  And they are often neglected in the response by governments and humanitarian agencies alike. 

Part of the reason they are neglected is because of the myths that exist around older people in humanitarian emergencies.  These myths include: the extended family and community will always protect people in later life; older people only have themselves to worry about; and a humanitarian agency will look after older people through general aid distributions.   

In reality, migration and urbanisation mean that the extended family is no longer as common as it once was.   And many people may not have the resources or ability to help others at a time when they are also suffering.  

Furthermore, while some older people may not have families to care for them, many others are actually caring for grandchildren as their own children migrate in search of work or die through conflict and illness.  So in many cases, people in later life not only have to look after themselves, but also the children in their care.  

Finally, there are no United Nations agencies and very few international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dedicated to older people.  Besides, older people have particular nutritional, cultural and health needs that are often not met by general relief distributions.  Sick, injured and frail people might find it difficult to queue or walk to relief distribution points, so they may not be able to access aid in the first place.  Relief packages may contain food that is too heavy to carry, too difficult to chew or lacking the nutrients that older people need.

That is why the work of our sister organisation, HelpAge International, is so important.  And it is only right and proper that the Conrad N Hilton Foundation should recognise their invaluable work.  Congratulations HelpAge!

Age UK’s annual policy conference, Agenda for Later Life 2012, is taking place today. Follow the conference tweets on Twitter #AFLL

Read the Agenda for Later Life  2012 report

The best exotic lotus pond hotel: an age-friendly village in India

On 24 February, a British film ‘The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel’ – starring the great and good of British cinema, including Judi Dench, Maggie Smith and Bill Nighy – goes on general release.  A group of British pensioners decide to move to India to spend their retirement in a less expensive and seemingly ‘exotic’ home for older people.  Inevtiably, all is not what it seems.

The film throws up questions about care for older people both in the UK and India.  And, with an ageing population, this is a pertinent question for individuals, families and governments around the world.

There is an assumption that older people in developing countries are always cared for by their extended families.  But social and economic changes are having an impact and the extended family is breaking down.

In India, the ‘joint family’ – where brothers share the family home with their parents even after they are married and have families of their own – is becoming more and more rare.  According to UN population statistics, now only 20% of families live in ‘joint family’ structures.  This is even despite the existence of the Maintenance and Welfare of Parents and Senior Citizens Act,  which obliges children to look after their parents by law. Continue reading “The best exotic lotus pond hotel: an age-friendly village in India”

Guest Blog – Violence against older women: tackling witchcraft accusations

25 November marks the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women.  Age UK asked its sister organisation, HelpAge International, to write a blog highlight the shocking practice of witchcraft allegations resulting in terrible acts of violence against older women.

In many parts of the world, older women, and sometimes older men, are still accused of witchcraft and subjected to violent attacks as a result. Recent media reports have highlighted the problem in Burkina Faso, Ghana, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania though the problem is not limited to these countries. 

In most of these countries, belief in witchcraft is common, with people from all sections of society sharing this belief regardless of their level of education, socio-economic group or ethnic origin.

It is usually the most discriminated against and marginalised who are accused ofwitchcraft because they are least able to defend themselves or because they are considered of little value to society and therefore a burden to it in times of hardship. One of the most vulnerable groups is older women.

Reliable data on the number of accusations and violent attacks is hard to come by. Government departments tend not to release the data and it is commonly accepted that these crimes are underreported. In Tanzania, for example, the Tanzania Legal and Human Rights Centre reported an average of 517 killings per year between 2004 and 2009.

Witchcraft accusations are often generated by wider problems in the community. Accusations can be linked to disputes between neighbours or family over land and inheritance. Traditional healers are often requested by those who have had misfortune, illness, or death in the family, to point out who has been “bewitching” them. More often than not, the traditional healer points to an older, vulnerable woman in the village.

The question is then, what is the best way to protect older women from these accusations and related violence and ensure that they are able to seek justice for any crimes committed against them?

HelpAge International and its local NGO partners in Tanzania have focused on community-based interventions. These include training people in women’s and widows’ rights and misconceptions about HIV and other illnesses; training  community members to provide paralegal advice on land, inheritance and marriage rights; working with religious and local government leaders; and influencing the behaviour of traditional healers.

On a more practical level, local communities have built houses for women who have been threatened or attacked.  Fuel-efficient stoves have been provided to show that red eyes – often associated with witchcraft – are actually caused by a lifetime of working over smoky cooking fires. 

These community-based programmes have shown positive results. There has been a 99 per cent reduction in the killing of older women in the programme areas and a significant reduction in disputes over land rights, inheritance and matrimonial issues.

Introducing or reforming legislation to criminalise accusations of witchcraft has also been suggested. To understand more about this as a potential solution, HelpAge requested guidance from lawyers on the use of this type of legislation. The findings of their research, which covered 9 countries, highlighted the inadequacies of specific witchcraft-related laws.

Very often witchcraft legislation fails to prevent accusations of witchcraft or protect those accused from violence. It rarely provides redress for the victims of violent crimes. Witchcraft-related laws are rarely enforced and there are concerns around whether people are getting fair trials or being unlawfully imprisoned under this type of legislation.

HelpAge believes that community interventions that empower older people and address the conditions that lead to accusations have more likelihood of success than concentrating on witchcraft-specific legislation.          

However, more does need to be done to strengthen justice systems and make them more accountable to those who seek justice. Inheritance laws should be revised if they are found to discriminate against women and widows and acts of violence against people accused of witchcraft should be prosecuted under existing criminal laws, such as assault, theft, damage to property or murder.

This guest blog was contributed by Bridget Sleap, Senior Rights Policy Adviser at HelpAge International.

Find out more about the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women

Find out more about our international work



The International Day of Older People: what should we be celebrating?

On 1 October, people around the world will be marking the International Day of Older People. The United Nations created this annual event in 1991 to celebrate the contributions and achievements of people in later life.  So what should we be celebrating? 

Well, I think the most obvious achievement is that people in some of the poorest countries in the world are actually reaching old age. Low life expectancy figures mask the fact that there are millions of older people in many of the poorest countries in the world. People aged 60 and over represent almost 11 per cent of the total world population; and by 2050, the number is predicted to rise to 19 per cent.  The most rapid increase in the 60+ population is occurring in the developing world. This will mean there will be more older people in the world than children for the first time in history.

 This is a huge cause for celebration because it demonstrates that improvements in healthcare, hygiene, water quality, sanitation and education are actually paying off and helping us to live longer. And living longer is an achievement.

 But growing old is not always easy. Older people are among the most vulnerable and marginalised people in the world: they are often amongst the poorest of the poor.  100 million of them live on less than one dollar (60 pence) a day.  Astonishingly, only 5% of people in later life have access to a pension.  Many have to continue working until the day they die.  And many have to work in poorly paid, unsafe and irregular work.

 So what should we celebrate?

We should celebrate when a country introduces a pension. We know that in households containing a grandmother in receipt of a pension, the benefit is felt across the family.  InBrazil, children in such households are up to 3 cm taller, due to the improved diet they receive.

 However, just because a pension exists, it doesn’t mean that an older person can get one. Knowing about it is half the challenge and proving that they are entitled is the other half. Lack of official documents and ID cards is a problem many older people face. AgeUKand HelpAge International campaign for pensions in developing countries, raise awareness about them and help older people to access them.

 We should also celebrate the activism and engagement of older people themselves. Over 2,400 Older People’s Associations (OPAs) have been formed across the world. These OPAs are made up of active, older people who are demanding that their voice be heard.  They are not passive recipients of aid.  They are active agents of change. 

 InTete,Mozambique, Juliano is the President of his local OPA and Podiria is in charge of the Livestock Committee.  Podiria assesses which of the older people in the community are most in need.  That person is given a couple of goats.  When the goats produce a kid, they pass it on to the OPA, so it can be given to another older person.  The OPA also runs a community welfare fund, giving loans or donations to the most vulnerable people, whatever their age.  Older people are helping themselves and others. 

 The one unifying experience most of us will hopefully share is ageing. We’re getting really good at it and we should expect a lot more of it in the years to come.

 So we have a choice: we can put our heads in the sand and pretend this isn’t happening or embrace the challenges and opportunities that await us.

 If there is only one thing we are going to celebrate on 1 October, let us celebrate the fact that many millions of people in developing countries have reached later life.