Feature: UN findings flag violence, abuse of older women accused of witchcraft

Women in Kenya. Photo: IRIN

15 June 2014 – Did you know violence and abuse against elderly women, the worlds fastest growing demographic group, range from sexual violence, property grabbing, financial abuse and increasingly, extreme violence against older women accused of witchcraft?

Throughout history, women described as witches have been persecuted, tortured and murdered.

According to an upcoming UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA) report on aging, citing civil society organizations, that practice continues today.

Witchcraft accusations that are used to justify extreme violence against older women are reported in 41 African and Asian countries, including Burkina Faso, Cameroon, India, Kenya, Malawi, Nepal and Tanzania. Older widows are often those most at risk.

Older women are at particular risk due to widespread discriminatory attitudes and practices, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon says in his message on World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. I call on Member States to enact and enforce stronger laws and strategies to address all aspects of this under-acknowledged social, public health and human rights issue.

The UN General Assembly, in its resolution 66/127, designated June 15 as World Elder Abuse Awareness Day. It represents the one day in the year when the whole world voices its opposition to the abuse and suffering inflicted to some of our older generations.

The main forms used for categorizing abuse of older persons include: neglect, physical abuse, sexual abuse, psychological abuse and financial abuse or exploitation.

But there is no clear picture of the actual scope of the neglect, violence and abuse of older women, its complexity and diversity, UN DESA has said.

The UN World Health Organization (WHO) says that abuse is under-reported by as much as 80 percent.

A UN working group on ageing has been established by the General Assembly aimed at strengthening protection of human rights of older persons, but experts on elderly abuse have stressed the need for define what constitutes abuse of older women.

The global population of people aged 60 years and older is expected to more than double, from 542 million in 1995 to about 1.2 billion in 2025. The share of older persons (aged 60 years or older) in the total population increased from 9 per cent in 1994 to 12 per cent in 2014, and is expected to reach 21 per cent by 2050.

And the incidence of abuse towards older people is predicted to increase as many countries are experiencing rapidly ageing populations.

Barbara Crossette, former New York Times Bureau chief of the United Nations who moderated a key panel discussion during a UN population conference at UN headquarters two months ago drew attention to the fact that gender-based violence is now taking the form of so-called elder abuse, especially of women who are living longer than men.

The time is fast approaching when a more focused institutional response will be necessary certainly for women, who are already the least able globally to cope with the hardships of old age and most in need of societal support, Ms. Crossette said.

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