The Fifty-fifth Session of the UN Commission on the Status of Women:
Gender, Education, Science and Technology, and Employment"
Education Never Ends": Advocating for Older Women and Widows
New York, NY: “We are addressing women’s needs. You are never too old to learn. Education never ends. We are bringing something valuable to women in their twilight years,” explained Liz Morgan, President of Soroptimist of Great Britain, during her closing statements at a February 22, 2011 UN CSW panel focusing on life course approaches to formal and non-formal education.
Soroptimist has three projects that focus on meeting the needs and strengthening the human rights of women aged 60 and up. Morgan’s programs incorporate both formal and non-formal education to “keep their brains active.” Traditional education targets younger people, creating an ageist education system that does not recognize the health benefits of learning. While many women served by Soroptimist may indeed be too old for a lecture setting, the informal education that comes with learning from each other and the community improves their well-being and mental health.
Morgan spoke specifically of their program in Nigeria where widows suffer a terrible plight. Widows do not inherit the property when husbands die; children are often dispossessed and widows may be subjected to ritual cleansing. Speakers said that this ritual involves dehumanizing acts such as walking naked, having their heads scraped of hair, observing regular wailing hours, and sleeping on a bare floor.
Many advocates are pressing for changes in such cultural rituals and policies because they violate human rights.
Soroptimist is working to empower older women through a “Fashion Center” that is training 100 widows and their children to sew. On International Women’s Day, the club arrived with food supplies, made a feast, and organized motivational talks for the women. Vocational skills and training provisions were free.
How will governments address these issues? Can the 2010 CEDAW General Recommendation on the Human Rights of Older Women be used to encourage change in such rituals?
Rebecca R. Richman