Commission on the Status of Women
5 January 1998
Commission on the Status of Women
2-13 March 1998
Item 3 (b) of the provisional agenda*
Follow-up to the Fourth World Conference on Women:
emerging issues, trends and new approaches to issues
affecting the situation of women or equality between
women and men
Older women and support systems: new challenges
Report of the Secretary-General
Contents Paragraph Page
I. Introduction 1-6 3
II. Care and support for old persons: gender dimensions 7-20 3
A. Countries with informal support systems 10-13 4
B. Countries with formal support systems 14-20 4
III. The situation of older women 21-31 5
A. Living arrangements 22-23 5
B. Economic situation 24-27 6
C. Health 28-29 6
D. Contribution to development 30-31 6
IV. Recommendations 32-36 7
A. Research 33 7
B. Economic security 34 7
C. Education and empowerment 35 7
D. Well-being of caregivers 36 7
1. United Nations conferences and forums have been
concerned about the situation of older women for more than
three decades. The first conference to deal with the issue was
the World Conference of the International Women's Year,
held in 1975 in Mexico City. The Conference recommended
that special studies be carried out on the situation of aged or
handicapped women.1 In 1980, the World Conference of the
United Nations Decade for Women: Equality, Development
and Peace, held in Copenhagen, also had the issue on its
agenda. It recommended that special attention be paid to the
problems elderly women face in their societies.2 In 1982, the
World Assembly on Ageing, which adopted the International
Plan of Action on Ageing, recognized that the majority of
older persons are women and recommended that particular
attention be paid to their situation.3
2. In 1986, the Commission on the Status of Women
considered a report of the Secretary-General on the status and
situation of older women in their societies (E/CN.6/1986/10).
The World Conference to Review and Appraise the
Achievements of the United Nations Decade for Women:
Equality, Development and Peace, held in 1985 in Nairobi,
Kenya, also addressed the issue of older women. The Nairobi
Forward-looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women
highlight some issues that are of particular concern to older
women, such as women's longer life expectancy, their
economic situation and special health needs.4
3. In 1992, the Commission on the Status of Women
adopted resolution 36/4, on the integration of elderly women
into development.5 In it, the Commission stresses that
approaches for the advancement of women should take into
account all stages of life and that older women make
important contributions to development.
4. The Beijing Platform for Action, adopted at the Fourth
World Conference on Women, held in 1995, also reflects
concern about the situation of older women. The
recommendations made by the Conference are based on a life
cycle approach and refer explicitly to "women at all stages
of life".6 Governments recognized that the socially established
roles of women and men were different and that, therefore,
women and men had different needs and interests. Policies
that did not take that into account tended to discriminate
against women. At the Conference, Governments committed
themselves to basing their policies and programmes on a
thorough analysis of the gender-specific needs of women and
men, in order to make sure that both genders benefit equally.
5. The present report was prepared in response to
Commission resolution 41/2, on older women, human rights
and development.7 In it, the Commission decided that at its
forty-second session, under the agenda item "Follow-up to the
Fourth World Conference on Women: Emerging issues, trends
and new approaches to issues affecting the situation of women
or equality between women and men", it would consider the
status of older women and make substantive recommendations
thereon. Furthermore, the Commission requested the
Secretary-General to report on "the key global issues
regarding the differential impact of population ageing on men
and women as a contribution to the International Year of
Older Persons" and to submit the report to the Commission
at its forty-third session. The objective of the present report
is to provide a substantive basis on which the Commission
can discuss the status of older women and make relevant
recommendations. The discussion of the Commission on this
item will also contribute to the ongoing preparations for the
International Year of Older Persons, to be held in 1999.
6. The report focuses on support systems for older
persons, which include both financial support for older
persons who do not earn a regular income and psycho-social
support and assistance with daily living for dependent older
persons. The report gives an overview of the new challenges
those support systems face and changing caregiving patterns.
It also highlights the situation of older women and suggests
gender-sensitive policies and programmes to address the
situation. So far, very little research has been done on how
changing caregiving patterns affect women and men
differently. In the assessment of the situation of older persons,
gender analysis has yet to be applied. In order to explore this
new ground, the Division for the Advancement of Women,
jointly with the Division on Social Policy and Development
of the United Nations Secretariat, organized the Expert Group
Meeting on Caregiving and Older Persons: Gender
Dimensions, in Malta, from 30 November to 2 December
1997. Particularly relevant recommendations of the Meeting
are included in the report.
II. Care and support for older persons:
7. The ageing of the world's population is one of the most
significant developments in the twentieth century, and it will
become even more significant in the century to come. In 1990,
almost half a billion people were 60 years old and above. By
2030, the number will triple, to 1.4 million. Most of this
growth will take place in developing countries, over half of
it in Asia, and more than a quarter in China alone.8 In most
countries, older women are much more numerous than men.
8. The majority of older persons are healthy and active.
They need opportunities to be productive and to lead a
self-fulfilling life. However, within the population of 60-plus,
persons aged 75 (the "very old") and over are the fastest
growing group. The gender difference in life expectancy rises
with age; almost two thirds of the very old are women.
Though many of them are independent, at that age, care and
support with daily living become more important.
9. Most societies in the developing regions rely
exclusively on the extended family which usually means
women to take care of the dependent elderly. Societies in
the developed regions, however, often have formal pensions
and care systems. The ageing of the population and the
declining availability of family carepersons have put high
demand upon care systems for older people. The challenges
those system face differ in countries with informal and formal
support systems but also show some commonalities.
A. Countries with informal support systems
10. In most parts of the world, dependent older persons are
supported by their extended families. By 2030, more than 75
per cent of the world's older population will live in areas that
are today called "developing countries". Traditional support
systems for older people face severe challenges. The
population in developing countries ages much faster than that
in industrialized countries. In France, it took 140 years for the
proportion of older persons to double, from 9 to 18 per cent.
It took 86 years in Sweden and 45 years in the United
Kingdom. In China, it will take only 34 years and in
Venezuela, only 22 years. The rising share of the older
population is caused by declining fertility rates, combined
with increased life expectancy. Fertility rates have declined
more recently and more rapidly in developing countries than
they did in the industrialized regions. In some non-Western
countries, the fertility rate is now at or below replacement
level for example, in China, Thailand, the Republic of
Korea, and many Caribbean countries.9 The consequence of
this older age structure is that there are fewer young people
who can provide support to their dependent elder family
11. In addition, the decline of traditional value systems
increased the stress that is put on traditional support systems
for older persons. Traditional societies often have great
respect for elderly people, who are considered the guardians
of wisdom and who have control over certain resources. This
has enabled them to protect their welfare and autonomy. Now,
however, many developing countries are in the process of
modernization and industrialization. This often erodes the
status older women and men used to have in traditional
societies. Modern societies tend to value economic success
over traditional values. The traditional and sacred are often
perceived as inappropriate to modern societies. This cuts to
the very heart of the traditional resources of older persons.
In agrarian economies the elderly are an economic asset, but
a modern industrialized society associates great age with
diminished economic function. As a result, many older
persons have lost their value as a sacred resource and may be
perceived as a burden to society and their family.10
12. Urbanization is another trend which has weakened the
traditional support systems for older persons. The global
population living in urban areas more than doubled between
1950 and 1975 and increased another 55 per cent from 1975
to 1990. By the early 1990s, 45 per cent of the world's
population lived in urban areas. In developing countries, the
urban population is growing by 4 per cent a year, much faster
than in industrialized countries (1 per cent).11 It is mostly
young people who leave their villages to work in the cities.
There, they work in the formal sector and often do not have
any way of taking care of their parents. This pattern is
accelerated as women, who are the primary caretakers, enter
the labour market in increasing numbers. Furthermore,
housing in urban centres often does not accommodate
extended families. Therefore, older people, most of them
women, are often left behind in rural areas, without support.
13. The decline of traditional support systems affects
women and men differently. However, so far, the gender
dimension has received very little attention by researchers and
practitioners. Policy makers in developing countries are just
beginning to address the challenges traditional support
B. Countries with formal support systems
14. One third of the dependent older persons in the world
rely on support outside their extended family. Most of them
live in the developed regions. Here, the proportion of the old
population is currently the highest in the world whereas in
high-income countries today more than 17 per cent of the
population are over 60, in low-income countries fewer than
7 per cent are over 60.12
15. In high-income countries (except Japan), fewer than 20
per cent of older parents live with their children (compared
to 75 per cent in the low-income countries of Asia and
Africa). The majority of older people in those countries lives
with just one other person, usually the spouse (52 per cent)
or by themselves (29 per cent).13 Women are much more
likely than men to live alone.
16. Although psycho-social support from the family remains
important in developed countries, most elderly rely on formal
systems for their pension and health care. The share of the
elderly population residing in institutions ranges from 4 per
cent in Israel and Japan to 11 per cent in the Netherlands.14
Most of the formal caregiving is provided by female
professionals who are often under-paid. Furthermore, those
who are provided with formal care are also mainly women.
In Canada, Israel and the United States, for example, three
fourths of the elderly living in nursing-homes are women.15
17. In terms of their financial security, the elderly in
developed countries rely almost exclusively on public
pensions. Today, mandatory pension plans cover more than
90 per cent of the labour force in industrialized countries.
Governments are responsible for financing and managing
public pensions. The most common arrangement in those
countries is called the "pay-as-you-go" system, since
currently working adults contribute to the programmes with
their payroll taxes to finance the pensions of those who have
already retired from the labour force. Since the system is
based on continuous employment in the formal sector, women
tend to be disadvantaged.
18. Due to the ageing of the population, the
"pay-as-you-go" systems are under scrutiny. The ratio of
working age population to retired population is changing.
Therefore, spending for public pensions will increase
dramatically. In those countries members of the Organisation
for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the
expenditure on public pensions grew twice as fast as the gross
national product (GDP) between 1960 and 1990; it now
represents nearly one tenth of GDP in those countries.16 Over
the next 50 years, public spending on pensions will escalate
in all regions (assuming that the current relationship between
demography and spending continues).
19. As a result of such changes, Governments, pensioners
and the current working population in developing countries
have come to question the future of public pensions. Many
countries have started to develop private pension plans to
complement the public support systems. In line with these
overall trends, there is often an attempt to bring care back to
the family and community. Many initiatives stress informal
caregiving as the main pillar of support in old age.
20. The trend to shift responsibilities from public support
systems back to the family has increased the demand put on
informal caregivers. All over the world, it is mainly women
who give care to older dependent family members. Most
societies take it for granted that women will provide unpaid
caregiving labour. This deprives women from other choices
and may limit their opportunities for self-development.
Women are often caught in the middle of the needs of their
children and their ageing parents. Furthermore, since women
are increasingly entering the labour market, they have to cope
with the double or triple burdens of caregiving, household
work, the needs of their families and the workplace.
III. The situation of older women
21. The feminization of old age is a global phenomenon. In
most countries, women live longer than men. For example,
life expectancy at age 15 is eight years longer for women than
for men in the United States, seven years longer in Canada,
and six years longer in Belgium, Sweden and Germany. In
most developing countries also, women live longer than men,
though generally less so than in industrialized countries. For
example, at age 15 the advantage is five years in Mauritius
and four years in Venezuela.17 The gender difference rises
among people over age 75; almost two thirds of the "very old"
A. Living arrangements
22. Since women live longer than men, they are more likely
than men to live alone in old age. In almost every country,
widows outnumber widowers. In Africa and Asia, more than
50 per cent of the women over age 65 are widows, compared
with only 10-20 per cent of the men. In the United States, 30
per cent of the persons over age 65 live alone, and 80 per cent
of them are women.18 In Switzerland, four times as many
elderly women live alone as elderly men (40 per cent versus
10 per cent); in Germany, six times as many (37 per cent
versus 6 per cent).19 This is the typical situation in most
23. In countries with traditional support systems, the
number of women living alone is much lower than in
developed countries, but still higher among women than
among men. Most older persons in developing countries,
whether widowed or not, live with their children. The more
offspring a woman has, the more likely she will live with one
of them. However, declining fertility rates will reduce the
availability of close kin in old age. In Jamaica, a women had
an average of six children in 1960. By 1990, the number had
declined to 2.8, and in the year 2000, the average is projected
to be just 2 children.20 This development, in conjunction with
a breakdown in traditional family patterns, will leave future
generations of women living alone without a formal system
to support them when they become dependent.
B. Economic situation
24. Older women are more likely to be poor than men.
During their lives, women generally have fewer possibilities
to earn and save money than men. Their labour is mostly
unpaid. If they do work in the paid labour force, they are
concentrated in the less well-paid professions and part-time
jobs. Furthermore, due to their different employment history,
women have less access to formal pensions. Their
participation in the paid labour force is shorter, more
irregular and more likely to be in the informal sector. Social
security was created for the benefit of wage earners and most
often does not recognize the value of household work and
child-rearing. The Beijing Platform for Action states that,
where social security systems are based on the principle of
continuous employment, the risk of falling into poverty is
greater for women than for men, particularly in old age.21
25. Furthermore, cultural practices and legal systems
discriminate against women in many countries. Often, women
have less access to property and inheritance and a lower
social status than men. Some cultures, for example, pass
property from the husband to the eldest son.
26. As a result, all over the world, older women are more
likely to be poor than men. In the United States, one third of
single women over 65 lived in poverty in 1986, twice the rate
for the rest of the population.22 A study of seven developed
countries revealed that an elderly person living alone had less
income than an elderly couple (adjusted to differences in
household size). That is especially true when the single
person is an elderly woman.23
27. In developing countries, where public assistance is
scarce, women are even more likely to face poverty when they
are old. In urban China, 41 per cent of older women have
annual incomes below the extreme poverty line (which is 70
per cent of the normal poverty line), compared to just 4 per
cent of older men. In Venezuela, two thirds of the old people
in the lowest income decile are women.24 Generally, widows
are the most vulnerable. In India, for example, households
headed by widows are by far the poorest group. Their
spending is 70 per cent below the national income.25
28. Older women face a higher risk of chronic illness and
disability. Female advantage in life expectancy is often offset
by disability. The concept of healthy life expectancy is used
to refer to the average number of years that a person expects
to be free of functional limitations. It is difficult to compare
measures of healthy life expectancy among countries.
However, one commonality that has emerged from various
studies is that women who reach age 65 can expect to spend
a greater proportion of their remaining years with functional
disabilities than their male counterparts. Data collected in
developing countries show that these gender patterns are
29. The overall disadvantage women face is not caused
solely by the fact that they live longer than men. Older
women's health problems are rooted in the discrimination
they face in their earlier lives. During their younger years,
many women have less access to nutrition and health care than
men, which leads to chronic illness in old age (e.g.,
osteoporosis or anaemia).
D. Contribution to development
30. Older women support their families and communities
in many ways. In many societies, older women who live with
their families perform crucial tasks in the household, such as
buying food, cooking and cleaning house. Older women often
take care of their grandchildren and thus ensure that their
daughters can earn an income for the family. Furthermore, in
many communities older women provide counselling for
young people, arrange marriages, act as kin-keepers, attend
births and deaths, lead religious rituals and do a wide range
of volunteer work. Many older women earn incomes with
trading and craft work.
31. However, older women's contributions to the
well-being of their families and communities are widely
overlooked. Societies often regard older women as an
economic burden, without recognizing their potential.
Furthermore, gender-stereotyping confines older women to
their roles within the house and the family and restricts them
from decision-making in the public sphere. Unlike men,
women rarely advance in their professional careers in old age.
Older women, in general, have limited choices in terms of
32. Based on the preliminary analysis of the situation, the
following recommendations might be considered.
33. So far, there is a lack of expertise and research on
support systems for older persons from a gender perspective.
National and international statistical and research institutes
(a) Disaggregate all data by age and sex;
(b) Analyse the needs of older persons and caregivers
from a gender perspective;
(c) Pay special attention to the situation of older
women and men in developing countries and carry out research on how the
decline in traditional support systems affects women and men differently;
(d) Analyse the consequences of privatizing public
pensions and health care based on gender and age;
(e) Develop a methodology to measure the value of
women's unpaid labour.
B. Economic security
34. Women in all parts of the world are more likely to be
poor than men. Governments and intergovernmental and non-governmental
(a) Ensure that women at all stages of life have access
to employment and income equal to that of men;
(b) Value the important contribution older women
make to development;
(c) Channel resources towards older women in order
to eliminate the gender gap in income;
(d) Eliminate discrimination against women in public
pension funds that are based on the principle of continuous
employment in the formal sector and extend coverage,
whenever possible, to the informal and agricultural sector;
(e) Ensure that the trend to shift responsibility away
from public pensions to individual savings takes into account
the differing needs and interests of women and men;
(f) Ensure that older women have access to credit and
(g) Equally involve men and women at all levels when
designing and implementing economic policies that affect
C. Education and empowerment
35. The level of formal education and participation in
public life of older women is much lower than that of men.
Governments and intergovernmental and non-governmental
(a) Ensure that throughout their lives, girls and
women have equal access to education and vocational
training, and promote women's self-esteem at all stages of
(b) Promote lifelong learning on the part of women,
provide possibilities for training and re-training, equip older
women with knowledge of modern and traditional
technologies so they remain in the mainstream of society;
(c) Ensure older women's autonomy and productivity;
(d) Promote a positive image of older women in
political and economic decision-making through mass media
(e) Give special attention to the situation of older
women in the context of the International Year of Older
D. Well-being of caregivers
36. Women as caregivers are in demand. In order to support
caregivers, Governments and intergovernmental and non-governmental
(a) Attach higher value to unpaid caregiving labour
and be aware that caregiving is not in unlimited supply;
(b) Ensure that the demand put upon women as
caregivers does not increase disproportionately to that put
(c) Provide caregivers with occasional respites from
their duties and with various services, such as house-keeping
help, self-help groups, specialized counselling and training;
(d) Promote an equal sharing of caregiving
responsibilities between men and women;
(e) Consider providing financial assistance to
(f) Support women who combine paid work and elder
care with measures such as flexible working arrangements,
family leave for the care of older dependent family members,
and reintegration of carers after a career break;
(g) Offer a variety of alternative services to older
people, such as home care and day care centres.
1 Report of the World Conference of the International
Women's Year, Mexico City, 19 June-2 July 1975 (United
Nations publication, Sales No. E.76.IV.1), chap. III,
resolution 13. Social security and family security for women,
including the elderly and the handicapped.
2 Report of the World Conference of the United Nations
Decade for Women: Equality, Development and Peace,
Copenhagen, 14-30 July 1980 (United Nations publication,
Sales No. E.80.IV.3).
3 Report of the World Assembly on Aging, Vienna, 26
July to 6 August 1982 (United Nations publication, Sales No.
4 Report of the World Conference to Review and
Appraise the Achievements of the United Nations Decade for
Women: Equality, Development and Peace, Nairobi, 15-26
July 1985 (United Nations publication, Sales No.
E.85.IV.10), chap. I, sect. A.
5 Official Records of the Economic and Social Council,
1992, Supplement No. 4 (E/1992/24).
6 Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women,
Beijing, 4-15 September 1995 (United Nations publication,
Sales No. E.96.IV.3).
7 Official Records of the Economic and Social Council,
1997, Supplement No. 7 (E/1997/27).
8 World Bank, Averting the Old Age Crisis: Policies to
Protect the Old and to Promote Growth, A World Bank
Policy Research Report (New York, Oxford University Press,
1994), p. 3.
9 United States Government, Department of Commerce,
Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the
Census, Older Workers, Retirement, and Pensions: A
Comparative International Chart book. IPC/95-2
(Washington, D.C., 1995), p. 6.
10 Nana Apt, Coping with Old Age in a Changing Africa
(Aldershot, Avebury, 1995).
11 World Urbanization Prospects 1990 (United Nations
publication, Sales No. E.91.XIII.11.
12 World Bank, op. cit., p. 28.
13 Ibid., pp. 62-64.
14 United States Government, Department of Commerce,
Economics and Statistics Administration, Bureau of the
Census, An Ageing World, II, International Population
Reports P95/92-3 (Washington, D.C., 1993), p. 55.
15 Ibid., p. 55.
16 World Bank, op. cit., p. 6.
17 Ibid., p. 29.
18 Lee Sennott-Miller, "Factors influencing the physical
and emotional vulnerability of older women". Background
paper for the Expert Group Meeting on Vulnerable Women,
Vienna, 26-30 October 1990, p. 28.
19 World Bank, op. cit., p. 29.
20 Denise Eldemire, "Older women: a situational
analysis". Country profile, prepared for the Division for the
Advancement of Women, United Nations Secretariat
(unpublished), p. 17.
21 Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women,
Beijing, 4-15 September 1995 (United Nations publication,
Sales No. E.96.IV.13), chap. I, resolution 1, annex II,
22 World Bank, op. cit., p. 30.
23 United States Government ..., An Ageing World, II ...,
24 World Bank, op. cit., p. 30.
25 Ibid., p. 53.
26 United States Government ..., An Ageing World, II ...,
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