Monday, March 7, 2011

CSW 2011: Advocating for Older Women and Widows

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

Older Persons and Human Rights: Awakening Our Quiet Elders

Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I’m 64?’ Kofi Annan quoted these Beatles’ lyrics in 2002 while addressing the Second World Assembly on Ageing in Madrid. Then the UN Secretary-General, Annan accurately observed that this single poignant sentence sums up the situation of older persons around the world.

Are we willing to acknowledge the considerable, and often untapped, contributions of older persons? And are we willing to see that even in the more developed regions of the world many older persons live in poverty, without access to adequate health care, housing, nutrition or basic services such as clean water or electricity?

I recently attended a workshop on the socioeconomic rights of older persons in South Africa and spoke with a participant during the tea break. This woman remarked that in her culture, older persons believed that they must accept their situations – no matter how dire. Who are we to ask for more? is the common sentiment.

I think this attitude amongst older persons of being resigned to one’s circumstances, of being reluctant to claim that to which one is entitled, spreads far beyond South Africa. This is not to say that older persons are necessarily silent about the challenges in their lives. I believe, however, that older persons are less apt to to stand up for themselves outside of their own homes or to speak up to persons of perceived authority.

The woman from the workshop said that older persons in her culture needed to know what their rights are and how to access them. She insisted that the mindset of accepting one’s circumstances would change if older persons knew they were entitled to more and were not expected to sacrifice for younger generations.

How do we awaken older persons to the realization that they deserve the same human rights as younger persons do, and how do we enable older persons to claim those rights?

Jill Adkins