Governments slow to respond to elder abuse

Elders face abuse for their property.
Inter Press Service / Maricel Sequeira

Toby Porter is chief executive officer of Health Age International

LONDON, June 15, 2016 (IPS) – Although instances of elder abuse are widespread around the world, many government responses have been inadequate.

Although there is evidence that elder abuse is a global problem, many governments fail to even collect data on the problem. In 2014, a World Health Organization (WHO), UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and UN Development Program (UNDP) Global Status Report on violence prevention showed that of the 133 countries surveyed, only 17 per cent reported any survey data on elder abuse, and of these, the majority were in high-income countries.

In Tanzania, the Legal and Human Rights Centre reported that 630 older people had been murdered in 2012; a year later, this number had risen to 765. Family members carried out many of the killings, accusing older women of witchcraft, and stealing their property, land and assets.

On World Elder Abuse Awareness Day, Wednesday 15 June, we remember the many older women who have been chased away by their husband’s relatives following his death. The main cause for this kind of abuse is said to be property, with witchcraft often being used as an excuse. Witchcraft is associated with old age, and unbelievably, allegations are often still believed when an older person is accused. Those whose husbands are alive tend not to suffer so much.

Mariam, 61, married with two children and six grandchildren, is from Mwanza, Tanzania, where many of the killings have taken place.

Mariam told HelpAge International, an international organisation working to reduce the prevalence of elder abuse, about why addressing this problem is so important to her.

“I feel really bad about this, which is why I and others have volunteered to play an advisory role,” said Mariam, one of many older women working to change negative community attitudes, behaviours and practices through human rights training and awareness raising.

Mariam grows maize and rice and keeps chickens and 30 ducks, which she plans to leave her two children.

She has also learnt how to write a will and is happy that she has had a chance to decide how her property will be distributed, ensuring that all her children benefit. She has now made sure that her property will go to both her son and daughter. In the past, only her son would have benefitted.

She recounts how she had a brother who died without leaving a will. All his property was lost and his children have suffered. She is determined that only her daughter and son will benefit when she dies and nobody else.

Any new international legal instrument on older people’s rights should provide the right to make advance directives, living wills and other legally binding documents setting out a person’s preferences for their end of life.

HelpAge’s Age Demands Action campaigners in Tanzania will be calling on their government to attend the seventh session of the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing in December, prepared to talk about what they would like to see in a new convention on older people’s rights. Their action will be echoed around the world, where the civil society organisations that are part of the HelpAge Global Network will organize a concerted effort to lobby their national governments.

Mariam has reported feeling more respected and valued now than when she was young. “I can now own property, for example the ducks are mine and not my husband’s. We eat well. I am able to contribute to the family. When I was young I depended on other people. Now I feel more empowered and more important in my family. My family respects me more because of my contributions.”

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