Older Women’s Rights Are Human Rights: 20 Years after Beijing

"With the right policies and supports in place, older adults can—and do—make valuable contributions to their communities, economies, countries, and the world."


Kathy Greenlee / Cailin Crockett
Administration for Community Living,
US Department of Health and Human Services

The year 2015 brings a unique opportunity to further advance the human rights of women and older people. It also marks the 20th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which called for specific progress toward gender equality on a global level. In the United States, 2015 also marks the 50th anniversary of the Older Americans Act, which was passed in 1965 at the urging of advocates for the independence and rights of older adults. This July, the White House Conference on Aging, which is held every decade, brought together older adults, advocates, and public and private partners to examine critical issues and policy initiatives on aging.

As the assistant secretary for aging, I have the distinct honor of bridging the worlds of domestic and foreign policy, as well as gender and aging. As the world celebrates the progress made since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, we are charting a new path for global development with the United Nations Post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, and it is critical that the interconnectedness of aging and gender be universally embraced.

Global demographics clearly illustrate this linkage. Worldwide, one in four women is over the age of 50. In the United States, 10,000 people are turning 65 every day, and by 2030, there will be 1.375 billion people worldwide over the age of 60. Around the world, older women outnumber men as they age, and the oldest old—generally defined as those 85 and older—are much more likely to be women.1 Women are, and will continue to be, the majority of the older population.(2)

Across many key indicators of well-being in older age, including poverty status and exposure to violence, older women fare poorly compared with their male counterparts.(3) When we look at the reasons behind poverty in old age for women, we see the same barriers to equality that women and girls encounter earlier in life: wage discrimination, unequal expectations of caregiving and raising children, financial exploitation, violence, and abuse. Gender disparities exist across the lifespan; they do not stop in later life. In fact, more often than not, the disparities are amplified as women age.

Despite this, older women are rarely visible in global gender policy, and aging is seldom discussed in the context of gender. 

The Beijing Declaration was an exception. It recognized age discrimination as a decisive barrier to women’s empowerment and advancement, and it included a reference to the rising aging population.(4) Accordingly, the Beijing Platform for Action specifically mentioned older women across six areas: women and poverty; women and health; violence against women; women and armed conflict; women and the economy; and institutional mechanisms for the advancement of women. Recommendations for government and multilateral action were made in each of these areas, urging policy makers to recognize the human rights of women and girls throughout every stage of their lives. 

It is disappointing that 20 years after the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, the particular commitments for older women are absent from the women’s human rights agenda. For example, less than 6 percent of those surveyed in the 2013 World Health Organization (WHO) study on global violence against women were over the age of 50. In addition, one of the draft indicators for measuring the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal for Gender Equality is data on the prevalence of violence against women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49.(5) This age cut-off means that nearly one-quarter of the world’s women will not be counted as part of the United Nations’ agenda for the next era of global development. The age cut-off is due to limitations of existing data collection models, such as those based on the US Agency for International Development Demographic Health Surveys, which originated as a maternal and child health survey used for family planning programs. However, these surveys have come to play an important role in providing data for global development overall, and it is time for older adults to be counted in these surveys. 

I am passionate about the issue of violence against older adults and their mistreatment. Elder abuse, including violence, neglect, or financial exploitation from a caregiver, intimate partner, or any other person with an expectation of trust, erodes the humanity in all of us. The more we study elder abuse, the more we understand that it predominantly affects women—and that’s not simply because women outnumber men as they age.(6)  Domestic violence, which may begin in childhood and continue in marriage, is a common form of elder abuse. In some regions, extreme violence and abuse against older adults occurs as a result of local practices, such as the accusation of older women of witchcraft to deny them land rights, or to seize their property. Elder abuse erodes the goals of aging: remaining independent and maintaining dignity.

It is no coincidence that the WHO finds that higher rates of elder abuse exist in countries where gender disparities between women and men are more acute; the cultural and social frameworks that marginalize women also tend to devalue older persons. It is imperative that future agendas for women’s human rights intentionally include older women.

The United States has developed practical measures to address elder abuse both domestically and abroad. Catherine Russell, ambassador-at-large for global women’s issues, leads the US Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence, which defines violence against women and girls as occurring across the life cycle, and explicitly includes elder abuse.(7) In 2010, the passage of the Elder Justice Act set an important precedent for national efforts to prevent, detect, and prosecute elder abuse, neglect, and exploitation. It also established the Elder Justice Coordinating Council, which coordinates elder abuse work of the 12 federal departments and other government entities. 

Recognizing the disproportionate impact of violence on older women, the lifelong impact of caregiving, and economic disparity, the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Office of the Vice President partnered with the White House Conference on Aging and my agency, the Administration for Community Living, to explore and encourage a lifespan approach to work on women’s issues, from domestic violence to economic security. These important steps taken by the United States reflect the spirit of the original Beijing goals set forth 20 years ago and provide examples I hope others will use so that no one is left behind in the next phase of global development.

Since the landmark proclamation of “women’s rights as human rights” at Beijing in 1995, advocates for global gender equality have made gains in advancing the notion that women’s empowerment is an asset for development. So, too, is global aging. It is time we change the narrative based on the stereotype that as people live longer, they become burdens on their families and expenses on their nations’ health systems. With the right policies and supports in place, older adults can—and do—make valuable contributions to their communities, economies, countries, and the world. 

Delegates to the Fourth UN World Conference on Women in Beijing understood the intersection between gender disparities and aging and carved out a place for older women in their platform. In celebrating progress, we must honor the commitments in the Platform that have gone unfulfilled. In the last 20 years, we have birthed a new generation of girls, and we have produced the next generation of elders. In continuing our work to honor the legacy of the Beijing Platform, we must celebrate them all. 

(1)“Globally, women form the majority of older persons. Today, for every 100 women aged 60 or over worldwide, there are just 84 men. For every 100 women aged 80 or over, there are only 61 men.” José Miguel Guzmán, Ann Pawliczko, Sylvia Beales, Celia Till, and Ina Voelcker, Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and a Challenge (New York: United Nations Population Fund and London: HelpAge International, 2012)

(2) Ibid.

(3) “In many situations, older women are usually more vulnerable to discrimination, including poor access to jobs and healthcare, subjection to abuse, denial of the right to own and inherit property, and lack of basic minimum income and social security.” Ibid, 13. See also: http://aarp-journal.cloud.stage.iapps.com/a/b/2014/06/2014-world-elder-abuse-awareness-day-older-women-and-poverty.

(4) “According to United Nations projections, 72 percent of the population over 60 years of age will be living in developing countries by the year 2025, and more than half of that population will be women.” United Nations. The Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 15 September 1995. Available from: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/pdf/BDPfA%20E.pdf

(5) Technical report by the Bureau of the United Nations Statistical Commission (UNSC) on the process of the development of an indicator framework for the goals and targets of the post-2015 development agenda. UNSC. March 2015.   http://unngls.org/images/PDF/Technical_report_of_the_UNSC_Bureau_final.pdf

(6) United Nations, Neglect, Abuse and Violence against Older Women (New York: United Nations, 2013). 

(7) United States Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally, http://www.state.gov/documents/organization/196468.pdf.

about the authors 

In 2009, Kathy Greenlee was appointed by President Obama as the assistant secretary for aging and administrator for community living of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). Before her service at HHS, she served in Kansas state government for 18 years, including her service as Kansas secretary of aging.

Cailin Crockett is special assistant for gender policy and elder rights at the Administration for Community Living (ACL) in the US Department of Health and Human Services, where she serves as international coordinator for ACL’s global engagement on the human rights of older people.


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