May 24, 2011

BANGLADESH: Focusing on Elderly Women

DHAKA / New Age / Op-Ed / May 24, 2011

By KM Mustafizur Rahman and AZM Saleh

POPULATION ageing is an enduring problem in the world. Globally, the population of the elderly is growing at an annual rate of 2.6 per cent, considerably faster than the annual population growth rate of 1.2 per cent.

The proportion of the elderly has been rising steadily from 8 per cent in 1950 to 11 per cent in 2009, and is expected to reach 22 per cent in 2050.

Elderly women constitute the majority of the elderly because women live longer than men.

Currently, elderly women outnumber elderly men by an estimated 66 million among those aged 60 years or over. Women are nearly twice as numerous as men among those aged 80 years or over, and among centenarians women are between four and five times as numerous as men (World Population Ageing, 2009).

The scenario in Bangladesh is quite similar to that of the rest of the world. Interest in gender as a theme in ageing originated in part from the recognition that women predominate among the elderly. Higher life expectancy among women than men has resulted in an imbalance in the sex ratio among older persons in almost all countries, including Bangladesh.

In 1950, 6.2 per cent of women were classified as elderly. This percentage is expected to increase to 8.6 per cent by 2025 and 16.7 per cent by 2050. In 50 years, the life expectancy of women might increase by nearly 16 years, i.e. from 60.8 years in 2000-2005 to 76.5 years by 2045-2050. Survival rate of elderly women might increase from 66.6 per cent in 2000-2005 to 90.1 per cent by 2045-2050 (World Population Prospects, 2008).

The discourse related to population ageing and gender differentials assert or imply that in comparison to men, women are disadvantaged in almost all indicators of wellbeing, including health, physical and mental functioning, as well as economic, educational, psychological and social aspects.

At the present circumstances, the elderly women in comparison to men feel more insecure because of the pattern of life changing, weakening kingship bonds and rapid transformation of family composition.

Family still provides the basic care for the elderly, but the traditional joint family structure is breaking down due to poverty, attitudes of self-interest, quarrels, maladjustment and so on and is gradually being replaced by nuclear families (UNESCO, 1992).

In Bangladesh, where about half of the population spend their lives under poverty, elderly population is considered a burden for the family. This is especially true for older women, who suffer from multiple disadvantages resulting from bias to gender, widowhood and old age.

Women, particularly widows who have no living sons or live alone, are considered to be particularly at risk of economic destitution, social isolation, poor health and death (Kabir et al., 2005).

However, a Bangladeshi woman enjoys power and authority if she happens to be the head of the family.

If this association is broken, her access to resources for care and sustenance in reduced, making her vulnerable, where women are discriminated against socially, subjected to domestic violence and disempowered.

Elderly women, particularly widows, were more likely to rely on family members for financial and material support, whereas men were more likely to have their own sources of income, mainly through work (Rahman et al, 2008). Labour force participation rate is much lower for elderly women than men. With their little or no economic security, elderly women are more likely to depend on their sons.

Another vital factor for the elderly is that the relationship with their daughter-in-laws is not mutual in most cases. Feeling financially insecure and unwanted, their lives are doubly affected by their age and widowhood.

In such situation, the elderly women population are more prone to abuse and neglect than the male elderly population.

The Plan of Action emanating from the Second World Assembly on Ageing in 2002 documents that older women are more vulnerable than their male counterparts in virtually every dimension, including being economically disadvantaged (UN, 2002). The United Nations Commission on Social Development undertook the first review and appraisal of progress made in implementing the Madrid Plan of Action on Ageing in 2007 and 2008, and is preparing to carry out the second review and appraisal in 2012.

In Bangladesh, the elderly people, especially the women, are more vulnerable because like many other developing countries, there is no feasible social security system. Inequality is highly found in gender towards all ages, including the old age.

However, the government of Bangladesh, along with several other national and international organisations, has taken various initiatives to help the elderly women as well as to reduce gender inequality, as under Article 15[d] of the constitution, the government is bound to take action in this regards.

In the fiscal year 2010-2011, the ministry of social welfare plans to provide an old age allowance of Tk 8910 million to 2.475 million beneficiaries and Tk 331.02 million to 0.92 million beneficiaries as allowance for widows (Department of Social Services, 2010). Even a private bank of Bangladesh, Trust Bank, arranged a one-off payment of Tk 7,000 and a regular monthly allowance of Tk 1,000 from January 2011 for 35 widows as a part of allowance programme for war widows (Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha, 2010). The existing allowances or programmes may reduce the rate of starvation of a limited number of elderly women for a short time, but most of them remain outside its reach. Furthermore, the inflation rate of the country is on a rising trend (10.49 per cent), while food inflation recorded at 13.87 per cent (March, 2011).

This is really an unfavourable situation for the survival of elderly women, especially those who have no or limited income. The adverse effects of inflation, especially food inflation, may toss them under poverty line. Therefore, the allowance and coverage of the cash transfer programmes should have been revised and increased considering the inflation rate.

Moreover, the problem of limited scale and population coverage may initiate problems of leakage and misallocation which may go undetected because of the current inadequate system for programme monitoring. Therefore, provision must be formulated for programme evaluation and also for understanding the impacts of programmes. However, specific measures are yet to be undertaken. Under these circumstances, more budgetary allocation regarding the elderly population, especially elderly women, is needed in the upcoming budget. Besides, the number of beneficiaries should be increased to an optimal level.

Particularly, in developing countries such as Bangladesh, ageing process is expected to accelerate in the near future.

As Bangladesh has a shorter time to adapt to the changes associated with population ageing, it is urgent that the government begins taking steps to face the challenges and make the best of the opportunities that population ageing brings.

Local and international organisations, along with the government, need to be more creative in implementing policies and programmes and should come up with well-timed programmes such as building nursing homes for the homeless elderly, improve health care facility, give incentives and raise general awareness on the elderly to overcome the problem.

The authors are researchers at Unnayan Onneshan

KM Mustafizur Rahman E-Mail:
AZM Saleh E-Mail:

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