Africa's Elderly Women

Denied the Right to a Dignified Life

Apartheid: the Tyranny of Racism Made Law by United Nations Photo.




Old woman at Ekuvukene, a "resettlement" village in KwaZulu "homeland" Natal. The ten so-called black "homelands" have in fact become dumping grounds for the sick, the elderly and anyone else deemed unnecessary to the white economy. 1/Jan/1982. UN Photo


Anushka Sehmi


Traditionally African culture dictated that elderly citizens be treated with respect, writes Anushka Sehmi, but as economic constraints erode the extended family system and fuel rural-urban migration, many old people languish in villages with no-one to care for them. With a quarter of African women left widowed by mounting conflict, disease and poverty, Sehmi explores abuse of and discrimination against elderly women in the light of cultural practices such as widow-inheritance and land ownership. Noting that ‘there is almost no legal or policy framework’ that safeguards the rights of elderly women in Africa, Sehmi calls for states to ratify and implement treaties that protect them, such as the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa and for marginalised groups to ‘be engaged and educated regarding their civic and political rights’. It is up to us to lobby and push our governments to perform this task, says Sehmi, or ‘these forgotten women will forever be denied the right to a dignified life’.

Improved healthcare and knowledge regarding health choices, sanitation and development has led to improved life-expectancy rates the world over. According to a report by Help-Age International, however, the pervading attitude among many people is that older persons have outlived their usefulness, are unproductive and over-dependent.[1] The rights of the elderly are usually last on the agenda when it comes to the protection of the human rights of a population as a whole. In fact the rights of the elderly have also taken second place on the global agenda in terms of policy-making and protection.

Traditionally African culture dictated that elderly citizens be treated with respect and were seen as a source of great wisdom in the extended family system. However, a complete erosion of the extended family system is taking place as a result of economic constraints and cultural practices, with appalling consequences for the elderly. In recent times the elderly have become ever more vulnerable to abuse and various forms of negative stereotyping and discrimination.

The situation in Africa is dire; increasingly the circumstances are such that many young people are moving to towns and cities in order to search for better job prospects, whilst older members of the family are being forced to languish in villages without anyone to care for them. This is especially true in the case of women who generally live longer than men and more commonly face poverty and isolation. Furthermore, elderly women seem to bear the brunt of discrimination, especially in terms of cultural practices specific to Africa, such as widow-inheritance and land ownership. The seemingly unstoppable tragedies of major armed conflict, HIV/AIDS and mounting poverty in many parts of Africa have pushed the widowhood rate up to a full 25 per cent of all African women.[2]


Older people face discrimination and abuse in a variety of forms in Africa. The HIV/AIDS epidemic has had a significant impact on elderly women in a number of ways. In many cases an elderly women and grandparent of an AIDS victim may have to act as a full-time caregiver, to the detriment to their own quality of life. In the case where elderly women are suffering from AIDS themselves, it may be the case that there is no one to care for them. Furthermore, elderly women whose children have died of AIDS are invariably left destitute. In Africa and Latin America, older people are more likely to be living in absolute poverty than the population as a whole. The proportion of older people living on less than US$1 per day is highest in Sub-Saharan Africa (47 per cent). The elderly traditionally have limited access in healthcare facilities and this is particularly the case in Africa where homes for the elderly are virtually non-existent. Furthermore, lack of government initiatives for the elderly persons in general, such as effective retirement policies, mean that many elderly women are financially dependent on their relatives and do not have proper access to healthcare.

In Tanzania and parts of Zambia, there have been reports of older women being accused of witchcraft and discriminated against. In Kenya alone, there are numerous instances of witchcraft allegations towards the elderly. The Standard newspaper reported that five witchcraft suspects were lynched in Kisii in March 2009[3]. The five – four elderly women and a man – were burned to death in broad daylight at Kanund village in Kitutu Chache. Ironically, residents, including some church leaders have supported the move to lynch suspects, with the chairman of the Kisii Pastors Union, Lawrence Omambia being quoted as saying that residents had a right to eliminate those ascribing to black magic. Belief in witchcraft is widespread across Africa but in northern Tanzania, it is particularly strong. Many attacks go unreported, while it is estimated that some 1,000 people in Tanzania lose their lives annually to witchcraft-related violence, the majority being women over the age of 50.[4]

In Kenya, a 110 year old grandmother was found raped and strangled in her home; also in 2007 the decomposing body of a 68 year old was found in the same village after a similar rape ordeal.[5] In November 2008, a disabled 80 year old woman was alleged to have been repeatedly raped in her home in the slums of Korogocho.[6] Rape of elderly women is sometimes attributed to young men’s belief that they are free from sexually transmitted diseases, and furthermore, women’s fear of visiting hospitals or reporting to the police for fear of exposing themselves and embarrassment makes them vulnerable to attacks. Many of the elderly are illiterate and in many instances may not be aware of their rights or may be physically incapable of asserting their rights.

This situation is further exacerbated by cultural practices that discriminate against women, such as widow inheritance and customary inheritance laws which leave women –especially elderly women – destitute, since they can no longer work due to health restraints. Many customary tenure systems provide little independent security of tenure to women on the death of their husband, with land often falling back to the husband’s lineage.[7] To add to this, many countries in Africa allow discrimination in application of the law when it involves matters of customary law. For example, in Kenya the constitution permits discrimination in matters of personal law that includes marriage, separation and divorce, burial, devolution of property on death etc.[8] This means that women have no legal protection when it comes to matters of personal law and they are generally at the mercy of the customs in their communities. In many African societies, women do not have the right to inherit property and land and must always depend on their male relative to have access to property. Therefore when a husband dies, women are likely to loose the matrimonial home and any other properties that may have been accumulated during the marriage to male relatives of the husband, leaving them destitute and vulnerable even in their old age.


Neither the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, nor the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights(ICESCR) contain any explicit reference to older persons. However, many of the provisions in these instruments are of direct relevance to ensuring equal opportunities and the full participation of the elderly. The ICESCR committee expressly addresses the economic, social and cultural rights of older persons. In the ‘general comment’, the committee calls on state parties, inter alia, to pay particular attention to older women as they have often not engaged in a remunerated activity entitling them to an old-age pension; to institute measures to prevent discrimination on grounds of age in employment and occupation; to take appropriate measures to establish general regimes of compulsory old-age insurance; and to establish social services to support the whole family when there are elderly people at home, and assist elderly persons living alone or elderly couples wishing to remain at home. The African charter on human and peoples’ rights does, however, expressly mention older persons as a group in need of special protection. Article 18(4), the African charter stipulates that the aged shall have the right to measures of special protection in keeping with their physical or moral needs. The protocol to the African charter on human and peoples’ rights on the rights of women in Africa sets out special protection for elderly women. It is as follows:

Article 22- Special protection of elderly women:

The states parties undertake to:
- Provide protection to elderly women and take specific measures commensurate with their physical, economic and social needs as well as their access to employment and professional training;
- Ensure the right of elderly women to freedom from violence, including sexual abuse, discrimination based on age and the right to be treated with dignity.

In 1982, the World assembly on ageing, held in Austria, adopted the Vienna international plan of action on ageing, the first international policy document on ageing. It was endorsed by United Nations general assembly resolution 37/51.[9] More recently the 2002 Madrid United Nations international plan of action on ageing was adopted by the Second world assembly on ageing. In Article 5, the Second world assembly proclaims its confidence towards ‘eliminating all forms of discrimination, including age discrimination’. It asserts that ‘persons, as they age, should enjoy a life of fulfilment, health, security and active participation in the economic, social, cultural and political life of their societies’ and proclaims its resolve ‘to enhance the recognition of the dignity of older persons to eliminate all forms of neglect, abuse and violence.’

How do the above legal provisions translate into action and protection for elderly people? Not very well – unfortunately many African countries are not yet signatories to the 2002 Madrid Convention. Furthermore, the African Women’s Protocol, which provides specific provisions for elderly women, has been ratified by just 27[10] out of the 53 African Union member states, with a minimal number of states even domesticating and implementing its provisions. The fact is that there is almost no legal or policy framework that protects the rights of elderly women in Africa, despite the policy and legal standards set out above. In the few instances where there are national policies and programs to safeguard the rights of the elderly, these provisions are not implemented properly. Thus, even if there are legislated policies for the aged, governments simply don’t take the initiative to execute these policies effectively. The worsening social and economic state of many African countries means that the rights of the elderly are not placed high on the agenda to the detriment of many older persons all over Africa.


African states have to take immediate steps to remedy the situation affecting elderly women. Treaties such as the African Women’s Protocol must be ratified, domesticated and implemented without delay. Moreover, marginalised groups such as the elderly ought to be engaged and educated regarding their civic and political rights. Formal retirement is not a benefit enjoyed by all elderly persons. In fact in Zambia only public servants who have worked in the formal sector are entitled to a pension equivalent to US$10 a month. Furthermore, there is no pension arrangement for people who have not worked in the formal sector.[11] This policy inherently discriminates against women whose work takes place in the informal sector. Economic and health policies concerning the elderly have to be reviewed and reformed for any lasting changes for the elderly women of Africa to take place. It is therefore time to act, governments have the tools and instruments to lay down and implement comprehensive laws and policies for the elderly. However it is up to us to lobby and push our governments to perform this task, otherwise these forgotten women will forever be denied the right to a dignified life. This will be me and you in a number of years to come, if not sooner.

* Anushka Sehmi is a lawyer and young women’s rights activist from Nairobi, Kenya.
* Please send comments to editor@pambazuka.org or comment online at http://www.pambazuka.org/.


[1] http://www.globalaging.org/elderrights/world/abuse.htm
[2] Source: http://www.cohre.org/store/attachments/COHRE%20Bringing%20Equality%20Home.pdf
[3] The East African Standard Newspaper, Wednesday 4th March, 2009.
[4] Source: http://www.helpage.org/Worldwide/Africa/News/@75762
[5] The Standard Newspaper, 14 January 2009 p. 16
[6] The Standard Newspaper, 26 November, 2008 p.13
[7] ICWR, ‘ To Have and Hold: Women’s Property and Inheritance Rights in the Context of HIV/AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa’, Working paper, June 2004, viewed at http://www.icrw.org/docs/2004_paper_haveandhold.pdf
[8] Article 82(1) (b) of the Constitution of Kenya
[9] http://www.un.org/ageing/vienna_intlplanofaction.html
[10] Countries that have ratified include: Angola, Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Comoros, Djibouti, Democratic Republic of Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea-Bissau, Libya, Lesotho, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Mozambique, Mauritania, Namibia, Nigeria, Rwanda, South Africa, Senegal, Seychelles, Tanzania, Togo, Zambia, and Zimbabwe. For the full list visit http://www.africa-union.org/root/au/Documents/Treaties/List/Protocol%20on%20the%20Rights%20of%20Women.pdf
[11] http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=74406

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