The Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons’ has a particular focus on older women

Article 8 PROTECTS older women from abuse and harmful traditional practices, including witchcraft accusations.

Article 9 requires governments to do the following:

  1. PROTECT older women from violence, sexual abuse and discrimination based on gender;
  2. PREVENT abuse related to property and land rights of older women in legislation;
  3. ENACT legislation to protect older women’s inheritance rights

Five Thematic Areas of the Protocol on the Rights of Older Persons that focus on the Rights of Older WOMEN

Theme 1: Violence Against Women & Harmful Traditional Practices - Article 8

Older persons are victims of ageism, which is a systematic stereotyping and discrimination based on age and physical appearance. Ageism results in a dominant discourse that views older persons as unproductive, an inconvenience, burdensome, dependent and passive. As a result, violence against older persons, particularly older women, is prevalent. Violence against women is not confined to specific age groups, in fact older women often face violence and neglect due to a combination of their age, gender, and other factors such as disability, being a widow and economic vulnerability. (McGivern 2018)

Violence against older women also manifests in accusations of witchcraft and the subjection of older women to dehumanising rituals (Nhongo 2005 and Doron et al. 2016). Older women in countries such as Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa may be characterized as “witches”. In 2013, more than 750 people in Tanzania, mostly women, were murdered after being accused of witchcraft. (Ngalomba & Harpur 2016) Accusations of witchcraft are often connected to unexplained events in the local community, such as a death or crop failure (Gorman and Petersen 1999).


  1. Ngalomba, S. and Harpur, P ‘The long lives aren't necessarily happy ones in Africa, particularly for women’ (2016) The Conversation. https://theconversation.com/long-lives-arent-necessarily-happy-ones-in-africa-particularly-for-women-66140
  2. Nhongo, TM ‘The changing role of older people in African households and the impact of ageing on African family structures’ (2004) Ageing in Africa Conference http://archive.kubatana.net/docs/hivaid/helpage_impact_of_ageing_0408.pdf
  3. Doron, I, Spanier, B, and Lazar, O ‘The rights of older persons within the African Union’ (2016) 1 Elder Law Review1-44
  4. Gorman M and Petersen T ‘Violence against older people and its health consequences: experience from Africa and Asia’ (1999) HelpAge International
  5. McGivern, M ‘Violence and Discrimination against older women is compounded in emergencies’ (2018) HelpAge International http://www.helpage.org/blogs/madeleine-mcgivern-31050/violence-and-discrimination-against-older-women-is-compounded-in-emergencies-1066/

Theme 2: Property, Land and Inheritance - Article 9

Older women are often subjected to discriminatory inheritance and property laws, and may face greater discrimination in access to services (HelpAge 2008). Some countries, such as Nigeria (Igwe 2014), allow customary law to prevail even when it discriminates against older women in terms of inheritance or property rights. This especially impacts women living in rural areas (HelpAge 2008, AU Policy Framework and Plan of Action on Ageing 2002).

As a result of socio-economic changes such as migration pattern shifts, (re)marriage and unemployment, many older people are denied access to their property and inheritance rights. Particularly for older women following the death of their spouse, they may be forced to deal with property disputes with family and community members who strive to take control (AU Policy Framework and Plan of Action on Ageing 2002).


  1. HelpAge ‘Protecting the rights of older people in Africa’ (2008) http://www.helpage.org/silo/files/protecting-the-rights-of-older-people-in-africa.pdf
  2. Igwe, OW ‘Cultural impediments to the realization of women’s human rights in Igboland, Nigeria’ (2014) 4 Journal of Private and Property Law 160-172
  3. AU Policy Framework and Plan of Action on Ageing (2002) http://www.un.org/esa/socdev/ageing/documents/implementation/AUFrameworkBook.pdf

Theme 3: Sexual and Reproductive Health - Article 15

The sexual and reproductive health of older women is not often considered when examining the vulnerability women face as they age. Issues such as HIV/AIDS, cervical cancer, and access to services in instances of sexual assault/rape, as they pertain to older women, are often ignored because there is a perception that older women are not involved in or impacted by HIV/AIDS, sexual pleasure and/or sexual violence.

There is very little research on older women and sexual and reproductive health, and the little research that does exist examines older women’s sexuality in relation to HIV/AIDS. For instance, UNAIDS 2015 estimates that of the 36.7 million people living with HIV worldwide, 5.8 million are aged 50 and older, with more than 2.7 million of those in Sub-Saharan Africa. These numbers are projected to triple in the coming years (UNAIDS 2016). Studies show HIV/AIDS has a great impact on sexual activity for women, with a report on Uganda indicating that women over the age of 50 with HIV/AIDS are far less likely to engage in sexual activity than their male counterparts (Heidari 2016).

There also exists some information on cervical cancer as it impacts older women. Across Sub-Saharan Africa cervical cancer services are usually targeted to and used by young women, who are at relatively low-risk for cervical cancer. The women most at risk, are aged between 35-60 years, especially those living rural areas, do not have easy access to cervical cancer screenings (Anorlu 2008). The failure to detect and treat cervical cancer during high-risk years has a detrimental impact for older women because they may never receive a diagnosis or treatment.


  1. UNAIDS, ‘AIDSINFO’ (2016) http://aidsinfo.unaids.org/
  2. Heidari S ‘Sexuality and older people: a neglected issue’ (2016) 24 Reproductive Health Matters 1-5
  3. Anorlu, RI ‘Cervical cancer: the sub-Saharan African perspective’ (2008) 16 Reproductive Health Matters 41-49

Theme 4: Pension and Social Insurance - Article 7

Pensions and social insurance schemes for older persons are a way to recognize the significant social and economic contributions older persons make to family, community and society-at-large. Pension and social insurance schemes create an immediate reduction in household vulnerability as well as facilitate social and economic change on a broader scale (Dullemen 2006). Social protection does not just mean economic resources, but also refers to measures that promote self-supporting and productive livelihoods for older persons. Community-based initiatives, alongside  those that target individual households, have great potential to increase the independence of older persons (Apt 2002). Such initiatives include those that address the lack of infrastructure in rural areas, including health, education and social services and the impact of internal migration from rural to urban areas.

Pension coverage levels are generally low for the vast majority of Africans. Over the continent, fewer than 10% of older adults can claim a pension, although variations differ greatly across countries (Golaz et al 2012). Governments have tended to adopt a hands-off approach, ultimately relying on families and private markets to provide care for people as they age (Kalasa 2004). However, countries such as South Africa and Kenya do have pension schemes in place.

In that most older women spent their lives caring for children and working in the informal sector, they generally have little to no education, wealth or assets. Older women are in general, poorer than older men. In some countries, approximately 75% of older women above the age of 65 are widows; leaving them with no financial resources (Doron et al 2016, Kalasa 2004). In that older women do tend to work in the informal sector, they will not have contributed to formal sector retirement schemes, and therefore need to rely on social insurance and  pension schemes to survive.


  1. Pensions in Africa: https://www.pensions-africa.com/
  2. Dullemen, CV ‘Older people in Africa: new engines to society?’ (2006) 18 Feminist Formation 99-105
  3. Golaz, V, Nowik, L & Sajoux, S, ‘Africa, a young but ageing continent’ (2012) 491 Population and Societies 1-4
  4. Doron, I, Spanier, B, and Lazar, O ‘The rights of older persons within the African Union’ (2016) 1 Elder Law Review1-44
  5. Apt, NA  ‘Ageing and the changing role of the family and the community: an African perspective’ (2002) 55International Social Security Review 39-47
  6. Kalasa, B ‘Population and ageing in Africa: a policy dilemma? (2014) http://archive.iussp.org/Brazil2001/s80/S84_04_Kalasa.pdf

Theme 5: Impact of HIV/AIDS - Preamble

HIV/AIDS has had a dramatic impact on certain regions of Africa, and has led to the essential disappearance of the “middle generation,” the parents of working age (Doron et al 2016). Many older persons, particularly older women, are left behind to raise the young generation (the grandchildren) in outlying residential areas. This explains why older women have been nicknamed “Africa’s newest mothers” (Nhongo 2004). In Uganda, Malawi, and Zambia, one in every five children lives with his/her grandparents. In Namibia, the rate is even higher, at approximately 61% (Doron et al 2016). According to some studies, the number of children who have lost one or both parents due to AIDS stands at approximately 15 million (UNICEF 2003). Older people have had to continue working to support the younger generation who lives with them, and most receive limited to no familial or social assistance (HelpAge 2008).  Population ageing, coupled with the impact of HIV/AIDS in the region, means that older people are now key to the survival of an increasing number of orphaned and vulnerable children, as well as those adults who are sick from AIDS.


  1. Nhongo, TM ‘The changing role of older people in African households and the impact of ageing on African family structures’ (2004) Ageing in Africa Conference http://archive.kubatana.net/docs/hivaid/helpage_impact_of_ageing_0408.pdf
  2. United Nations ‘Africa's orphaned generations’ (2003) https://www.unicef.org/media/files/orphans.pdf
  3. HelpAge ‘Older people in Africa: a forgotten generation’ (2008)  http://www.helpage.org/silo/files/olderpeople-in-africa-a-forgotten-generation.pdf.
  4. Doron, I, Spanier, B, and Lazar, O ‘The rights of older persons within the African Union’ (2016) 1 Elder Law Review1-44



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