To commemorate International Women’s Day, the WHO posted a comment last week on its website called “Ten top issues for women’s health.” Dr. Flavia Bustreo, the WHO Assistant Director General for Family, Women’s and Children’s Health, listed “getting older” as one of those ten main issues that still face great challenges in term of health for women globally. This coincides with different statements made by UN agencies like UN Women and the International Labor Organization (ILO) which had stated that “aging has a female face.”
Evidence has shown that women not only live longer than men but are also less likely to enjoy income security during actives ages -which in turn restricts the possibility of saving for old age- and live under economic independence during advanced years. Because of a lifetime of economic disadvantage, older women end up with lower incomes and less access to land, housing and other assets that would help them maintain an adequate standard of living. There is another aggravating factor in the lack of protection during women old age. Having often worked in the home and mainly in charge of the “care work” of children, the sick and older people close to their households, older women may have fewer pensions and benefits, less access to health care and social services than their male counterparts. Combine the higher risk of poverty with other conditions of old age, like dementia, and older women also have a higher risk of abuse and generally, poor health.
According to the ILO, the coverage of contributory social protection schemes for women is unusually low, and in the absence of social protection floors, women are often left without any support. This is primarily in the case concerning old-age pensions systems which grossly fail to produce equal outcomes for women. In fact, in most countries, women are less likely than men to receive a pension at all, or they have lower benefits. In North Africa, for example, 63.6% of elderly men receive an old-age pension, but only 8.0% of women do. Moreover, within the European Union, women’s pensions are on average 40.2% lower than those of men.
The Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat released in 2017 a World Population Ageing and reported that, at the global level in 2010-2015, women’s life expectancy at birth exceeded that of men by 4.6 years. Also, this UN Secretariat department reports that, in general, older women are more likely than older men to live alone. Worldwide, approximately 17 percent of women aged 60 or over lived alone, compared to 9 percent of men in that age group, and in both Africa and Europe, older women were more than twice as likely as their male counterparts to live alone.
So, there is a necessity for securing women’s income in old age to protect them against poverty, poor health, among other risks. Back in 2007 the WHO published a report called Women, Ageing and Health: A Framework for Action, in which describe a global profile of aging women and propose a framework for action base on a life-course approach. While recognizing that policies and practices that support health and active aging for all should benefit women as well as men, it also made a call for countries to plan for aging systems through gender lens under three fundamental pillars of action: participation, health, and security. Taking into account that the global evidence has not change much since it publication, this call is still valid. Aging is a gender policy priority within countries, and, just like Dr. Flavia Bustreo mentioned during her recent comment, is an issue regarding women’s health that should keep us awake at night.