8 March marks the International Women’s Day. This day is crucial in highlighting the challenges that persist in terms of gender equality: across the world, gender discrimination and violence against women are still widespread, poverty often has a female face and decision-makers are still overwhelmingly men. This year, the theme of the international day is ‘Pledge For Parity’.
When talking about gender equality, many people think especially about younger women – yet older women face similar challenges, even more so as inequalities accumulate over the life-course. Moreover, as the UN Independent Expert on the Enjoyment of All Human Rights by Older Persons has warned, the rights of older women often remain invisible.
Last year, the European Commission highlighted again in the Pension Adequacy Report that the gender pension gap stands at almost 40 % – meaning that older women have on average 40% less income than older men. This is more than twice the figure of the gender pay gap (16%). The gender pension gap is a consequence of multiple forms of discrimination: women are still paid less than men for the same job; they are more often than men caring for their children or dependent relatives, making them switch to part-time or taking long career breaks; women also still work mostly in professions that are paid less and are less likely to be promoted.
While the equalisation of statutory pension ages between men and women improves gender equality, most of recent pension reforms reinforce the pension gender gap: moving from Pay-as-you-go social security pensions to individual funded pensions results in less mutualised compensation for career breaks linked to care responsibilities. Last year, the European Council adopted conclusions on reducing the gender pension gap, yet little has been done so far to address this issue: overwhelmingly the answer of politicians is to increase employment rates of women. A political decision to compensate, in terms of pension rights, persons who have to reduce their career for legitimate reasons such as informal care, is however needed.
Poverty is a widespread problem among older women. According to Eurostat in 2014, 23 % of women over 55 lived at risk of poverty and social exclusion, almost 5 % more than men. Among older women, those with the highest poverty rates are older working-age women (55-65) and older women aged 75+. Unfortunately no statistics are available for women over 85 who face additional difficulties: many of them can no longer count on their spouse’s income and are living alone; due to inadequate indexation of pensions their income is further eroding while their living costs are rising because they might need more medical and long-term care. The European Parliament has recently released a research report on older women living alone and is currently working on a new report looking at the gender dimension of poverty. AGE hopes that it will also consider the status of older women.
Recent EU initiatives in relation to gender equality aim at the reconciliation of work and family life, a process in which AGE takes part. These initiatives are badly needed, as older women also face care responsibilities at home: 70% of care is provided by informal carers, and most of them are women. Older workers with care responsibilities are also less likely to build adequate pension rights – a carer’s leave directive is needed to address this challenge, but it should be underpinned by an investment into formal child and eldercare services that support informal carers and care beneficiaries.
Today women aged 54-64 belong to a generation that has taken much time off work to provide informal care. Their employment rates are almost 14 % lower than for men aged 55-64 years. In the EU less than one in two older women of working age are in employment. However this is not the case in all countries. In Sweden for example, the gender differences in employment rates are low (5 %) and the employment rate of older workers is high (74%), showing that there is room for improvement and ways to allow older women to contribute their significant experience in the formal labour market.
It is often highlighted that women live longer than men – however, these additional years are not necessarily linked to a better quality of life. The healthy life years indicator, measuring the number of life years spent in good health, is about the same for women than for men – therefore, women spend a larger proportion of their life in ill health. They are therefore more vulnerable to inadequate health and long)term care systems: For example, Alzheimer disease is affecting much more women than men, but in many countries few adapted services, care networks, financial support and a supporting system are developed so to ensure an efficient response to the challenge.
Another important topic for older women is violence. Many facts are known about violence against women in younger age, but elder abuse affects, according to the European study AVOW, around 28% of older women in the year preceding the study. Older men are also affected by elder abuse, but the World Health Organisation notes that women comprise 60-75 % of victims of maltreatment against older persons. Risk profiles seem to be different for women and men, women being more likely to experience financial and interpersonal maltreatment as well as homicide by family members, while older men are reported to be rather victims of sexual abuse and physical injuries.. Besides these facts, very few broad data is available on violence against older people and more specifically against older women. One of the reasons is that studies often stop after 70 or 75, showing a direct discrimination in considering the importance of the phenomenon because of their age.
As stated in the general comment on older women issued in 2010 by the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) : ‘The full development and advancement of women cannot be achieved without taking a life cycle approach, recognizing and addressing the different stages of women’s lives — childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age — and their impact on enjoyment of human rights by older women’ and also calls for the collection of data disaggregated by age and sex.