Global EditionASIA 中文双语Français
Home / World / Asia-Pacific

Gender equality is key to healthy aging

By Bjorn Andersson | China Daily Global | Updated: 2020-10-09 08:58
Share - WeChat

In a relatively short time, COVID-19 has devastated the lives of millions globally. For hundreds of millions more, the toll wrought by the pandemic could have lasting effects for decades.

Perhaps one of the most cunning aspects of this virus is the harm it inflicts on older people who face multiple and compounding threats, including being physically more vulnerable, at greater peril of the impacts of social isolation, and at significant risk from the very serious and likely long-lasting socioeconomic shocks of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has proved to be acutely dangerous for people with underlying health conditions, ranging from diabetes and asthma to cardiac disease and cancer. A disproportionate death rate is seen among older people in most countries. Beyond physical health, the pandemic continues to take a heavy toll on older people-and women in particular-in terms of psychosocial health and economic well-being.

In the Asia-Pacific region, these impacts are particularly acute, adding to the existing challenges of grappling with accelerating population aging. This region is currently home to over half the world's population over 60 years of age. Globally, the number of older people is expected to surpass 2 billion by 2050. By then, nearly two-thirds of the world's older people-close to 1.3 billion-will be in the Asia-Pacific region, with one in four people over age 60.

Women, who generally outlive men, currently constitute the majority-some 54 percent-of older people in the Asia-Pacific, but represent an even greater majority, 61 percent, of the "oldest old" population of 80 years and over.

Even before the COVID-19 crisis, elderly women in a majority of Asia-Pacific countries were facing significant challenges, exacerbated by the fact that many societies have been moving from traditional, nuclear family-oriented patterns to far more fluid, fragmented structures. The result has been that many older women, who have a higher tendency to live alone and face poverty, are more likely to lack family and other socioeconomic support. The majority of older people do not have reliable and sustained access to a caregiver. Facing nonexistent or only minimal safety nets, many have already slid into poverty during the pandemic or are on the cusp of doing so.

The pandemic has brought into acute focus the urgent need for both governments and civil society to address the complex demographic shift of population aging with strategic solutions and programs. To do so successfully, we need a life-cycle approach to healthy aging, with particular emphasis on girls and women, firmly grounded in gender equality and human rights.

To unpack this, let us consider a woman in her 70s in the small village where she was born and raised.

As with so many of her generation, she was made to marry early, with minimum education. She had children early, pregnancies were unplanned, childbirth was risky. Her husband, many years older, died a long while ago, leaving her a widow, unprepared to enter the workforce or properly fend for herself. Her children left the village for the city, adding to her isolation. This is the scenario many older women now face-with the added risks, burdens and effects of COVID-19.

But imagine if, as an adolescent, this woman had been able to take that other branch of the road: completing school and higher education; achieving gainful employment; marrying as an adult and of her own choice; having healthy children and being able to invest in their well-being; and, ultimately, enjoying a secure old age.

If addressed in a holistic way and underpinned by better policies, more resilient social systems and gender equality, the lives of older people, especially women, can be improved significantly. This would also allow societies to harness the valuable experience and knowledge of older people as they age-reaping a "longevity dividend" from healthy, active older people who can continue their engagement in family and community.

In fact, the commitment to advance a better world in an aging society has already been articulated by the 2002 Madrid International Plan of Action on Ageing. This agreement commends the development of evidence-based policies that help create "a society for all ages". In addition, the landmark Programme of Action of the International Conference on Population on Development and the United Nations' 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development underscore the basis of this approach to healthy aging.

We now must collectively prioritize greater action, funding and implementation.

Within the United Nations Population Fund, our mandate clearly incorporates the need to enable and strengthen the self-reliance of older people, including women, enabling their participation for the benefit of both society and themselves.

As UNFPA, the UN's sexual and reproductive health agency, we are increasingly seeing countries turning to us for advice and assistance on issues of an aging population.

As the Asia-Pacific region, with the rest of the world, seeks to "build back better" from the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, let us seize this moment to transform the challenge of population aging into an opportunity. We must translate gender equality and human rights into practical strategies and approaches that ensure no older woman will be left behind.

Bjorn Andersson is the United Nations Population Fund regional director for Asia and the Pacific. The views do not necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

Most Viewed in 24 Hours
Copyright 1995 - . All rights reserved. The content (including but not limited to text, photo, multimedia information, etc) published in this site belongs to China Daily Information Co (CDIC). Without written authorization from CDIC, such content shall not be republished or used in any form. Note: Browsers with 1024*768 or higher resolution are suggested for this site.
License for publishing multimedia online 0108263

Registration Number: 130349