Afghanistan: Critical concerns and challenges of ageing women
In some countries, power comes with age, but not in Afghanistan where wholesale denial of rights and opportunities are imposed against women throughout their life spectrum. With a society that supports gender-based oppression and an economy that is held hostage by armed conflict, corruption, weak human resources, and wayward politics, Afghanistan may be the worst place in the world for women to grow old.
CONCERNS AND CHALLENGES
1) Low life expectancy
In terms of ageing, the primary concern and challenge faced by my country is the inability of Afghan women to reach their full longevity potential. Only two years ago, Afghanistan was known as a country where women never grow old – not because they remain young forever, but because their average life expectancy was only 44 years. While women in many countries are just beginning to peak in their career at this age, Afghan women’s life is already over.
In the 2011 Maternal Mortality Ratio (MMR) survey, however, Afghan women’s life expectancy was found to have risen to 61 years. According to Public Health Minister Suraiya Dalil, this may be attributed to “improvements in health conditions, nutrition in childhood, positive changes in lifestyle, better management of households, and reductions in the miseries of life”. It may also be attributed to some improvements in reproductive health care, given that ailments related to reproductive health is the major cause of female deaths in Afghanistan.
Although the dramatic rise in female life expectancy is hailed as a very positive development, the fact that Afghan women die much sooner compared to their sisters in other parts of the world remains a major concern. The new life expectancy figure for Afghan women is still around 29 years short of the life expectancy of 89.68 years for women in Monaco, which is the highest female longevity in the world as of 2012.
It is also important to point out that while women in most countries outlive their male counterparts, the reverse is true in Afghanistan. As of 2009, the population of Afghan women aged 60 and above is around 564,780 or 2.3 percent of the Afghan population. This is lower by 217,356 than the population of males in the same age group; a proof that despite the continuing armed conflict which has been taking the lives of many men for years, women are still dying in disproportionately higher number. These being so, it is important to recognize that discourses on women’s ageing need to pay attention to the extraordinary circumstances that prevent them from reaching their full longevity potentials.
2) Diminished value as human beings
The experience of Afghanistan shows that once a society accepts that women are generally dying after their child-bearing years, women’s importance is consequently reduced to nothing more than a baby-maker. Then, their worth as human beings - with rights, capacities, potentials and other needs across their lifetime - are dramatically obliterated. With a perspective like this, public policy and action tend to give lopsided emphasis to women’s pregnancy and domestic roles - to the detriment of their needs as senior citizens. This explains why Afghanistan decision makers miss the agenda of social security measures for ageing women; why no agency of the government is dedicated to the care of the elderly; and why there is no implementing policy for the care and protection of the old people of the country.
3) Inadequate welfare support to ageing women
In policy, the State explicitly commits to assist in the care of needy elders. Article 53, Section 2 of the Afghan Constitution provides that, “The State guarantees the rights and privileges of pensioners and disabled and handicapped individuals and as well renders necessary assistance to needy elders, women with caretakers, and needy orphans in accordance with the law.”
Yet, the government does not allocate sufficient resources for the pension and care of needy elders. This was acknowledged in paragraph 16 of the combined first and second reports of the Afghanistan government on the implementation of the Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which states that, “The government has granted the pensions and gives the needed financial support to the elders, poor women…. However, due to shortage of financial resources, the government is not able to provide sufficient social services.” The neediest elders receive no more than the equivalent of $5 dollars a month. And as long as millions of dollars are being spent to fight a senseless battle with anti-government elements, our people could never expect the government to consider social security of the elders as a priority.
In this scenario, the care for elders in Afghanistan continues to be in the hands of families. Unfortunately, Afghan families are ruled by men. All women, including the female elders, are expected to submit to the full authority of the family head - or face the risk of verbal, economic, psychological, and physical violence. Ageing women have limited voice in the family. Their engagement outside of the home is restricted, and they are denied of rights and opportunities for quality life that ageing women enjoy in other societies. Their life is characterized by confinement to household activities, bereft of social, recreational and other stimulating activities – almost like being in a prison with a death sentence.
In such a context, it is important to consider that 36 percent of the country’s population is living below the poverty line. This figure translates into 9 million Afghans being unable to meet their daily basic needs. Likewise, Afghanistan’s Gross National Income and Gross Domestic Product are the lowest in the South Asian Region and its latest value for ‘age dependency ratio’, or the ratio of dependents (people younger than 15 or older than 64) per 100 working-age population in the country, was estimated at 93.55 as of 2011. This figure is still expected to increase given the positive trends in people’s life expectancy. These being so, it is clear that Afghan families may not have the resources necessary to decently care for their elders. Within extremely poor families, old women would increasingly be perceived as an economic burden, especially when faced with expenses for health problems that are normally associated with ageing.
4) Absence of health services for female elders
Ageing is associated with degeneration of health and physical capacities. A UNAMA article last year reported that “health workers say that disabilities linked with old age, such as weak eye sight, slower mental capabilities and memory loss, have grown”. Minister Suraiya Dalil also stated in the same article that “over 65 percent of people above 50 years of age are suffering from eye problems while about six percent reported abnormal behavior”. Although they are important, such observations failed to recognize the reproductive health issues affecting ageing women and the fact that in a country where people have been constantly exposed to extreme violence and violence against women for years, such experience may have taken a serious toll at their physical and emotional well-beings.
The Ministry of health created a special department to develop an action plan to combat diabetes, cancer and cardiac illnesses, which could also be beneficial to ageing women. However, ageing women could only access them on limited basis because shortage of public resources generally shrinks the outreach of such services, leaving many remote areas deprived of health care. Furthermore, there are only a handful of female health service providers in the country and Afghan society still frowns upon treatment of female patients by male health professionals.
5) Lack of studies/data on the ageing population
Because of the doubling of Afghan population in the past decade, the number of old people is likely to grow sharply. It now comprises 6 percent of the population, a 200 percent increase from the figure of the past ten years.
Despite this reality, very little attention is being given to the issue of the ageing population in the country. There are no comprehensive studies about their situation that could inform policy/law making, planning and programming. The government’s preoccupation with the peace process leaves the concern of ageing women invisible in government priorities. There are very scanty data about the ageing population and there is hardly any effort to use them for policy or program decision making.
Where data on elders are available, the analysis of gender differences in their health, security, physical, emotional and other needs are missing. As female elders do not have much opportunity to raise their voice in public affairs, there is little attention and interest on them as a subject of research. The fact that all people are bound to become elders in the future may be an opportunity to make ageing an agenda of youth, women, and other marginalized groups. In an ideal situation, however, elder women themselves will have to speak up and call attention to the State’s neglect of their situation.
6) Absence of activism for the ageing women
Afghan NGOs and international entities usually act as advocacy groups and providers of missing interventions to the neglected sectors of the Afghan population. However, nothing of this kind is present to address the plight of ageing women. There are no entities promoting the organization of ageing people, coming up with agenda for advocacy and action, or raising public consciousness on the needs and issues affecting them. There is an Afghan Elderly Association that was founded in Fremont, California on 8 January 1995 but little is known about what it does for the ageing population inside Afghanistan. Media, which has always been active in bringing information and knowledge to the public, are also silent about the situation of ageing women. Male elders who are involved in policy and decision making never bring up the issues and needs of elders as it may not augur well with the image of continuing competence that they try to maintain for themselves in public. All of these reinforce the lack of attention to the ageing women of Afghanistan and contributes to their invisibility in the realms of public policy and action.
7) Gender biased attitudes of society toward ageing women
Respect for elders is very much part of Afghan culture. However, the standard of respect and behavior remarkably differs for old women and men. Men are revered and their ideas are sought in important decision making processes at the national, community and family levels. These include settling of disputes and resolution of economic, political and security issues. ‘Shuras’ or councils of elders are traditionally limited to men although the peace and reconstruction initiatives of the past 12 years had paved the way for the formation of all-female shuras or the membership of women in traditionally male-only shuras.
The older a man becomes, the greater is the value and status he gains in society. This is not the same for women. Right from birth, females are already consigned to a subordinate status and the degree of subordination heightens, up to the time that a daughter-in-law joins the household. The eldest woman presides over the affairs of the younger women in the family, especially in preserving the tradition of honor and morality, which in Afghan society, is symbolized by women’s purity, subservience, self-sacrifice, modesty, and obedience to traditions that are dictated by men. This power is gradually taken over by the next-in-line as a woman gets to be too old to carry out such function. Because they are confined to the very limited social circle of the family, their twilight years no longer give space for further growth and productivity. Very old women, especially those who could no longer take care of themselves, may increasingly be perceived as a burden to some members of the family and to the household economy.
8) Greater vulnerability to violence and disasters
In an “honor and shame” society like ours, little is known about the extent of violence that elder women experience within the family. Disrespect for elders is a very shameful act, both for the offender and the victim. It is possible however, that emotional or verbal violence among ageing women is rampant in the country.
More worrisome, however, is the fact that a country that is constantly in conflict, like Afghanistan, may leave ageing women as among the most likely casualties of armed fightings and bombings. The extent of this problem may never be known as media and authorities do not disaggregate the record of casualties by sex and age. This is also true for victims of natural disasters such as floods and earthquakes. Failing eyesight, poor locomotive capacity, diminished mental alertness, and weakening of senses make them vulnerable and unable to save or protect themselves when necessary.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSION
Afghan women continue to have very low status in society and are denied rights and opportunities for empowerment throughout their life spectrum. Within such an oppressive context which is aggravated by inept governance, lack of security, and massive poverty, Afghanistan may be the worst place for a woman to spend her twilight years.
There are interrelated concerns and challenges that are faced by ageing women in the country, which are: (1) low life expectancy; (2) diminished value as a human being; (3) inadequate welfare support; (4) absence of health services; (5) lack of studies/data for policy and action; (6) absence of activism for the population of ageing women; (7) gender biased attitudes of society towards them; and (8) greater vulnerability to violence and disasters.
These are only a few of the many challenges that ageing women in Afghanistan are experiencing and could not be taken as a substitute for a comprehensive study on the subject. A research on the situation of the ageing population in the country, with special attention to the plight of ageing women, must be conducted within the immediate future to create evidences that would support policy advocacy and programming for them. It is still a long way to go, but the first steps must begin now.
By Dr. Massouda Jalal
Founding Chairperson of Jalal Foundation and Former Minister of Women, Afghanistan