Older Women and Those With Disabilities Are More at Risk of Abuse

Women over the age of 60 and women with disabilities, face a higher risk of abuse yet their experiences are largely hidden in most data, according to two new publications released today by the World Health Organization (WHO).

Where there is data, these groups face high prevalence, with one systematic review finding greater risks of intimate partner violence for women with disabilities and another finding higher rates of sexual violence

“Older women and women with disabilities are under-represented in much of the available research on violence against women, which undermines the ability of programmes to meet their particular needs,” said Dr Lynnmarie Sardinha, Technical Officer at WHO and the UN Special Programme on Human Reproduction (HRP) for Violence against Women Data and Measurement.

Sardinha is one of the authors of two new WHO briefs on measuring violence against older women and against women with disabilities. These briefs are the first in a series on neglected forms of violence by the UN Women-WHO Joint Programme on Violence against Women Data

“Understanding how diverse women and girls are differently affected, and if and how they are accessing services, is critical to ending violence in all its forms,” said Sardinha.

According to the WHO, one in three women worldwide experience physical and/or sexual violence in their lifetime, whether from their intimate partners or from others. The prevalence of violence ranges from 20% in the WHO’s Western Pacific region, to 22% in Europe, and as high as 31- 33% in the Africa, Eastern Mediterranean and South-East Asia regions.

Additional risks

But older women and women with disabilities also face specific risks and additional forms of abuse, sometimes at the hands of caregivers or health care professionals. These include coercive and controlling behaviours such as withholding of medicines, assistive devices or other aspects of care, and financial abuse.

In older age, intimate partner violence tends to change from physical to psychological abuse, including threats of abandonment, although more research is needed to understand how power dynamics shift in older age.

Older women and women with disabilities can be extremely isolated when violence occurs, making it more difficult for them to escape and report the abuse. Stigma and discrimination can further reduce access to services or information, or result in their accounts of violence being dismissed by responders.

“Gender-based violence is rooted in unequal power and control over women,” said Dr Avni Amin, Head of the Rights and Equality across the Life Course Unit at WHO and HRP. 

“For older women and women with disabilities, their dependency and isolation are further exploited by perpetrators, increasing their risk of abuse. Services must be responsive to their needs and identify appropriate contacts through the health and care systems, so that all women experiencing violence can access empathetic, survivor-centered care.”

Noting that older women are currently represented in only about 10% of data on violence against women, the WHO recommends extending the age limit for survey participation and incorporating questions relating to different types of violence, encompassing a broad spectrum of disabilities.

They also advocate for user-friendly formats such as Braille or EasyRead to enhance the accessibility and participation of some disabled women.

Image Credits: UN Women.

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