How well prepared is Sri Lanka to deal with the feminization of its fast ageing population?
Statistics indicate that life expectancy for Sri Lankan women is at 79 as opposed to 72 for men, therefore women and men on the threshold of 60 are expected to live 19 years and 12 years longer respectively.
While globally, the over 60s population is projected to be around 20% by 2050, that same age group in Sri Lanka will make up 20% of the population by 2030. Already, two thirds of Sri Lanka’s over 80s population is women.
The feminization of ageing has its own unique challenges, and needs societal change, government commitment and firm policies that would ensure women in their twilight years are not confined to lives of impoverishment, abandonment and celibacy.
On the one hand there is the need to ensure quality of life in terms of health care and finance, while their right to live as they please must also be protected.
On Monday, July 8th, the UNFPA hosted the “Ageing without limits, Policy Dialogue: Feminization of Ageing” at the BMICH, to mark world population day which falls on July 11th. The event included a panel discussion made up of both Sri Lankan and international experts on the topic.
Sri Lanka’s policies on ageing will and must include options and facilities for men. However, as discussed by the panel, it is women who need more supports in the areas of health care, finance, independent living and overcoming social constraints. According to the UNFPA briefing note, older women face higher levels of age and gender based challenges than males. No surprise there, as Sri Lankan culture even in this 21st century continues to discriminate against women of all ages, from the freedom to choose their preferred attire to purchasing liquor.
Living longer must ensure that women do not end up being poorer or a burden to families. More often than not, women themselves see theirs as a secondary role, acting as caregivers to the younger generation and not venturing out to live as they please. There is also the issue of economic stability of her own family, in providing for her needs. This is more acute amongst the lower income groups.
Sri Lanka has much to learn from some Asian countries as well as other developed nations which have introduced various supports for their senior citizens.
For instance, as panel members discussed, should the over sixties have the option to continue working and be financially independent as do many of their counterparts in other countries? Minister of Primary Industries and Social Empowerment, Daya Gamage speaking at the event shared his plan to have senior citizens working in the 5,000 export villages he has set up, and also persuading banks to provide loans to this group so they could start a business and be financially independent. He pointed to the gap; only public officers enjoy a pension while those working in other sectors do not have access to such a lifelong income. It is time, he said, the country introduced income schemes, health insurance, and community based programmes for the elderly.
Being sixty today is quite different to being sixty twenty years ago pointed out Rintaro Mori, Regional Adviser, Population Ageing and Sustainable Development, UNFPA who added that senior citizens are healthier and live longer now; therefore they also need to establish quality relationships in their senior years.
Singapore had introduced a “whole of government” approach to dealing with her ageing population said Thelma Kay, International Consultant and Advisor on population ageing. It’s a rights based approach, she explained where the idea was like a trampoline, which ensures that seniors are provided the wherewithal to have a dignified life, without falling through the cracks. One such is the provision of skills training so seniors could venture out into different areas of work and activity and not rely on family or government for help.
As Dr. Pabasari Ginige, Senior Lecturer and Honorary Consultant Psychiatrist at the Peradeniya University argued, reaching sixty and beyond should not mean the end of living life. How do today’s thirty something women view themselves at sixty, she asked. Would they make drastic changes; stop outings with friends, going dancing, working, making new friends or dating etc.?
Certainly, already, amongst the urban elite, there is no sign of the over sixties women taking a back seat, or changing their lifestyles. However, that is not the case for a larger majority of women, who are, as age comes upon them, automatically relegated to what is culturally expected of elderly women; caregivers, no outings with friends, no dating if widowed or single etc. In fact, the latter actions would most likely create a storm of protest from everyone around, and who knows, even result in a government circular outlining how older women should conduct themselves!
Ours is a society where a majority of older women are not economically active, and if that is to be positively addressed, the government must invest in women who are currently in the workforce, so that they would continue to have a steady income in their senior years, points out the UNFPA’s report on Ageing Population of Sri Lanka. The idea is to prepare them for a more secure life as they approach retirement. The report also states that currently, a majority of ‘female older persons are widows, while their male counterparts are mainly married. This pattern is significantly marked in all three older age groups, the young –old, the middle-old and the oldest-old categories.”
UNFPA’s briefing note, meanwhile, lists a number of situations which, while applicable to both men and women, impact the latter differently. Amongst those are the unique health related challenges plus the risk of sexually transmitted infections, limited access to social support and lack of finances, physical, and sexual abuse, loneliness, stress, anxiety, poverty, difficulty in accessing employment, social and cultural barriers in participating in recreational activities, obtaining employment, finding companionship, new partners and intimacy. Widows, the report states, are those who are most impacted by these situations.
Sri Lanka then has much to think of and work aggressively, first towards attitudinal change; while the nation must begin to view seniors, both male and female, as persons with a right to a fulsome life, for women in particular the changes must be drastic.
The year 2030 is not too far away. Will society and government be ready by then to ensure that women will enjoy the right to live independently with access to their own income, learn new skills and activities, more affordable and accessible mental and physical health care services, not be relegated to the role of family care-giver and most importantly recognition that they have the right to make new friendships, and enjoy if they so wish, an active sex life without society’s condemnation.