Allay Elders' Fear of Loneliness, End Widows' Ostracization, Say Speakers At UNFPA Book Launch

  • 10 April 2002

Relaying the voices of older persons in her country at the launching of the UNFPA book, Situation and Voices of the Older Poor and Excluded in South Africa and India, a South African contributor to the book, Tersia Moagi, told of their fears, needs and happy moments.

"They are afraid of death and dying, they are afraid of rejection and isolation, they are afraid of being thrown out and staying on the streets," said Ms. Moagi. "They are afraid of criminals and rapists and they are afraid of a dark and bleak future."

Older persons are “afraid of rejection and isolation, ...of being thrown out and staying on the streets,” Ms. Moagi tells her Ageing Assembly audience in Madrid.  Photo: Abubakar Dungus

While many of South Africa's older persons took care of AIDS orphans, they had limited understanding of the disease. "They do not understand the symptoms or causes of the disease, with many of them thinking that it is a curse from the ancestors."

Nevertheless, they soldiered on bravely, with many of them taking care of six to eight grandchildren, she said. They took care of their grandchildren quite often without knowledge of public or private grants that could support their efforts or of how to take care of their HIV-positive children.

It was not all doom or gloom, however, Ms. Moagi said. Older poor persons reported positive experiences such as meeting in church, growing vegetables, or farming. All that most of them wanted was engagement in poverty alleviation projects, and opportunities for training, she continued.

Ms. Shankardass called for an end to the condemnation and ostracization of widows, adding that older persons deserve respect for their contributions to society. Photo: Abubakar Dungus

Talking on the situation of some of India's older poor, Mala Shankardass, also a contributor, called for more sympathy and support for them, especially for widows. Many widows in India suffered many deprivations, she said. For example, they often faced loneliness, poverty and isolation. Further, many of them reported indignities, which cost them their self-reliance and respect.

She called for an end to the condemnation and family ostracization of widows. Such women and other older persons should be given respect and dignity for their contributions to their societies. She added that, contrary to stereotypes, older persons remained involved in paid and unpaid labour as well as in activities in their families and communities. Myths that presented them as mouths to feed, bodies to nurse, frail and inactive, or that they had no role in the economy should be debunked. Laws should be passed and enforced to ensure their access to productive resources, such as land and credits, she proposed.

One way to ensure that, Ms. Shankardass continued, was to make older persons views' key inputs to development policies and actions. Their poverty should be placed at the core of social, economic and ethical debate in India, she added.

A major African labour leader expressed strong support for her suggestions. Speaking from the floor, the Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), Hassan Sunmonu, praised the researchers and the book for highlighting older persons' concerns. He urged them and the UNFPA to continue stressing the need to strengthen cultures that displayed strong respect for older persons.

Secretary-General of the Organisation of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU), Hassan Sunmonu, supported the call to strengthen cultures that revere the elderly. Photo: Abubakar Dungus

Mr. Sunmonu said that, in Nigeria and many other parts of Africa, elders were held in such high regard that arguments with, or verbal abuse of, them were seen as being close to abomination. That kind of reverence should be promoted in national policies and through education.

It was, however, necessary to address developing countries' fundamental economic problems in order to tackle older persons' poverty and lack of old-age support.

"If you want to treat leprosy, you cannot apply medicine for skin rash," said Mr. Sunmonu. "Skin rash is only skin-deep, while leprosy eats much deeper into the body. Therefore, we cannot deal with the problems of the old and their poverty without dealing with the underlying causes of their economic status."

The elderly should be involved in decision-making, especially when it related to them, Mr. Sunmonu continued. "You cannot shave the head of someone when he is not there," he added. "So, if we try to create policies without their participation, it is like trying to shave the head of someone in his absence."

The labour leader congratulated the UNFPA for relaying the concerns of the developing world's elderly to the international community.

The Chief of the Population and Development Branch of the UNFPA's Technical Support Division, Richard Leete, recalled that the Fund's Executive Director, Thoraya Obaid, had been stressing the need to continue considering the cultural dimensions of policies or programmes. He informed the audience that she had highlighted the role of culture in her speech to the Ageing Assembly's plenary.

"There are various cultures and views on older persons," said Mr. Leete. "We need to build on positive cultures and sub-cultures, especially as they concern older persons."

Situation and Voices was launched by the Director of the Asia and Pacific Division, Mohammed Nizamuddin, alongside Thérèse Jacob, General Director of the Population and Family Study Centre (COGS) of Belgium. The event was one of several organized by the UNFPA in relation to the Ageing Assembly [see website]. Among the highlights was the Executive Director's speech to the Assembly plenary's opening day on Monday, 8 April. She also took part in an eminent persons' round table on developing in an ageing world. It was moderated by a former Secretary-General of the United Nations, Javier Perez de Cuellar.

The Fund was also one of the sponsors of the Valencia Forum on Ageing, where it delivered a keynote address on the operational challenges of population ageing. It organized a symposium on poverty in old age, with presentations from South Africa and India. The NGO Forum in Madrid also witnessed UNFPA participation.

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