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Focus on world's older women

The UN HAS proclaimed 1999 the Year of the Older Person. In so doing, the organization is recognizing concerns and problems emerging as the world population grows older. Whether one talks of the "aging of America" or the "graying of Japan," the similarities cross all cultures. There is much to be said for recognizing the many contributions of this population and the need to challenge limiting stereotypes.

Yet my concern is that, with all the attention to this population during the Year of the Older Person, problems relating to older women in particular may be overlooked. This population, at times helpless, frail, and often invisible, isn't generally acknowledged to be a group requiring specific services.

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In studying the condition of older people, many of the reports available deal with issues concerning the older population in general. Government statistics make it clear, however, that the major component of this population is female, and women are an increasing majority as the age level advances.

There are many forms of human rights abuse toward older women - economic, psychological, physical, sexual, and cultural. While these problems are prevalent around the world, there is a thunderous silence in much of public policy.

Millions of women live on the margins of society, face daily economic pressures, receive negligible health care and support services, and barely make it.

Steps being taken to remedy these inadequacies are insufficient at best, particularly in areas of turmoil and impoverishment. Reports from the media, and governmental and nongovernmental organizations tell of struggles by older women around the world, and show the need for government-supported remedies.

For example, in Africa nearly half the adult relatives of children orphaned by AIDS are grandmothers hindered by their own illness and lack of income; in some African countries, elderly women are often accused of being witches and are stoned or burned to death; teenage gangs in France reportedly target elderly women for robbery; the number of destitute, elderly Ethiopian women rivals the number of street children in that country; older Thai women, particularly in the textile industry, are displaced by younger, cheaper workers; care facilities for the elderly in Greece are few and often fail to meet the needs of clients; in China, there are almost no such facilities.

Each country must mobilize its governmental and nongovernmental agencies and city and rural populations at the grass-roots level to find solutions. Each society has its unique face and so must find its own way. The Year of the Older Person gives us all an opportunity to consider these issues. In doing so, we should remember the older woman.

*Adrienne Gombos is a research associate for Equality Now, a nonprofit organization in New York City.

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