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Women Deliver Conference 2019: Why Older Women's Voices Must Be Heard

HelpAge USA CEO Kate Bunting attended Women Deliver’s 5th Global Conference on gender equality and women's rights in Vancouver, Canada from June 3 to June 6. Women Deliver is a leading global advocate for the different issues affecting women’s lives including health, human rights and gender-based violence. More than 6,000 advocates from over 160 countries attended the conference, with another 100,000 more participating online.

Hear from HelpAge USA CEO, Kate Bunting on why older women’s voices must be better represented by both Women Deliver and the larger movement for women’s rights.

Q&A With Kate:

Interview conducted and edited by: Mary Dimitrov, Summer Fellow, HelpAge USA

1. Why was it important that HelpAge attend the Women Deliver Conference?

We wanted to ensure that the voices of older women would be represented at the world’s largest conference on gender equality and the health, rights and well-being of women and girls. This is really the first time that they actively thought about and sought out topics that would include older women in some of their needs.

2. Who was your favorite speaker at the conference?

There were so many great speakers that it is hard to choose. I was extremely impressed with a young female genital mutilation survivor. She was using her power to help end this practice. She was determined, but graceful and understanding at the same time. She was unique and I liked her spirit and her manner.

I will express my admiration for Margaret Kabango (a board member of the Uganda Reach the Aged Association and activist representing HelpAge International at Women Deliver). She is 76 years-old and is an amazing advocate on the rights of older women and men. She considered herself lucky as she had a good education as a young girl – something many girls still struggle with today. Despite her education, she has felt the burden of not being heard and that drives her determination to speak out about her rights. She was a powerful speaker and touched a nerve with many of the participants when she said “why is older women’s reproductive health something that isn’t to be talked about? I have needs too.”

Listen to Margaret Speak Here

3. The conferences theme was Power - Progress – Change. How do you think HelpAge’s message fits in with this theme?

Older people’s voices are powerful and bring a perspective that hasn’t been heard before. I think we made some progress on getting this issue heard by gender equality advocates, and I think change will come going forward.

What you will do with your power was a big theme of the conference and Margaret answered that question by speaking her mind – not just as an advocate, but as an older woman herself. Margaret used her voice, saying “We need to include older women in our conversations about sex, health and rights.” It was her voice, her thoughts—the conversation was unscripted but underscored her perspective having worked and lived in Uganda all her life.

4. Why is it important that advocacy organizations like Women Deliver are made aware of the issues that women face in older age and include older women in their work?

We have not yet overcome ageism. When we talk about people who are older, we think they’re not able, don’t know what they’re talking about, or just aren’t interested in public discourse. Yet, our research tells us older women and men have very strong opinions, want to be heard and don’t want other people to talk for them. As you get older, you have just as much to say and contribute, so it’s important that you have the opportunity to do so.

5. What are some of the issues women face due to both gender and age, and why do these issues deserve greater attention?

No one has adequately explored the inequalities after age fifty. Being younger and experiencing gender inequities -- not having the right to go to school, marrying early, not having access to healthcare, or the ability to plan for a family -- can impact your life going forward. As an older woman you face many, many kinds of discriminations and those same rights are violated as an older person. And your life, your health and your environment have all been shaped by events that have happened throughout your life.

6. How do you think advocacy organizations including Women Deliver could improve on including older women in their work?

There’s a pretty common saying “You only treasure what you measure.” If you’re not measuring people over the age of 50, you’re pretty much saying “we don’t care about you.” I think the most important thing is probably to start collecting data on women over the age of 50 and collect it in disaggregated cohorts. Everyone changes throughout their lifetime. It’s important to delineate between different cohorts because needs change and without data we’re not going to know what the difference is between what’s important at fifty versus at eighty. The other thing that could be done is just including older women in the conversations and not just assuming we know their needs, but letting their voices be heard.

7. Why do long term sexual and reproductive health services matter to older women?

Sexual and reproductive health doesn’t stop just because you turn a certain age or go through menopause. Just as you need care for all your health needs, sexual and reproductive care should be available to everyone, regardless of how old you are.

People tend to think that older people do not or should not have these needs, and they’re discouraged or not even asked about their sexual and reproductive health after a certain age. But the reality is that they need to be. Older people are just as susceptible to sexually transmitted diseases and may not be as knowledgeable about how to protect themselves during sex.

There’s also a lot of different issues that can arise in our later years like complications from childbirth and pregnancy, things like fistula, having your uterus prolapse, or incontinence. Every human being has the right to health care – not just those under a certain age.

8. What was your biggest takeaway from the conference?

My biggest takeaway is that there are a lot of women that are fired up and ready to take their power to do good. It’s great to be empowered by others and learn about other topics, but you also have to remember at a conference like this that these are people who want to be there. There’s actually a whole bunch of people that know nothing about this conference or have opposing views. In our quest for change we have to continue to talk to broader audiences about these issues and reach them with our message.

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