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Leaving no one behind means confronting ageism in development

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India socially excludedThe number of people aged 60 and above is expected to reach 1.4 billion in 2030 and 2 billion in 2050— with the majority living in low- and middle-income countries. Photo: UNDP Asia Pacific

Every year on 1 October, the United Nations observes the International Day of Older Persons. This year the Day is devoted to taking a stand against ageism, the systemic stereotyping and discrimination against people because they are considered old. Fortunately, with the adoption of the 2030 Agenda, the invisibility of older persons in international development programmes and policies is finally being addressed.

Although the international community officially recognized the harmful consequences of ageism as a matter of human rights in 2014, the Millennium Development Goals made no mention of older persons or population ageing. It has only been through the adoption of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the 2030 Agenda’s commitment to “leave no one behind” that older persons have been explicitly included in global development policy agreed to by all Member States.

Why the shift? Demographics alone warrant increased attention to ageing populations. The number of people aged 60 and above is expected to reach 1.4 billion in 2030 and 2 billion in 2050— with the majority living in low- and middle-income countries. Gender equality goals, in SDG 5 and integrated throughout the 2030 Agenda, also compel us to finally recognize and remedy the scope of gender disparities throughout the life span and strategically include older women in this agenda.

Women aged 50 and above represent nearly one-quarter (23.6%) of women around the world. Most of these women are living in low- and middle-income countries and outnumbering men as they age. Therefore, when confronting ageism, we must also confront sexism and accordingly reimagine development policies and programmes so that they take into account the impact of age and gender discrimination—and reinvest in older women.

As the UN’s lead development agency, UNDP has a solid foundation of projects across each region in which we work that benefit older persons, addressing key areas from livelihoods and social protection, to gender-based violence and access to justice. In India, for example, UNDP is supporting a project to secure land rights for single, older women, many of whom were widows and abandoned by their remaining relatives.

In Moldova, UNDP is working with UN Women on a programme to subsidize the cost of biomass heating in poor households, with single older women who live alone comprising more than 40 percent of those receiving support. And in Tanzania, UNDP is working with the government to challenge gender and age stereotypes and supporting efforts to criminalize violent accusations of witchcraft against older persons— which is often done in attempt to drive widows from their property.

While these are all positive examples, the development community can and should do more. The 2030 Agenda provides a clear impetus for UNDP, and others, to strategically implement a life course approach—one that includes older women and men—in our policies and programmes.

In recognition of the International Day of Older Persons, UNDP is releasing our newest issue brief, Leave No One Behind: Ageing, Gender and the SDGs. This resource will articulate ageing as a development issue in the context of the SDGs and introduce some policy recommendations to begin to consider ageing populations in development work. The inclusion of older women and men will bring us one step closer to leaving no one behind.

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