Feminising ageing

Saturday, 6 July 2019 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Most people are aware that Sri Lanka has an ageing population. But what they are less aware of is how ageing also has its own gendered demographic challenges. In Sri Lanka the life expectancy for women, on average, is seven years more than for men, which means policies are needed to specifically address challenges faced by ageing women.  

The Sri Lankan population is ageing at a faster rate than other South Asian countries and has been increasing rapidly since the 1980s. Between 1981 and 2012, the proportion of the population aged 60 years and above has increased from 6.6% to 12.4%. By 2030 the World Bank estimates that one in every five Sri Lankans will be over the age of 60. The over 80 age category will have more women than men since the average life expectancy of men is 72 but for women it’s 79.  

Rapid demographic transition with a marked decline in death rates and birth rates and increases in life expectancy are leading to important changes in the age-sex structure. This is not just a trend seen in Sri Lanka but across many countries in the world. However, as a developing country there are additional challenges to provide better end-of-life care to women because of systemic problems within economic and social spheres. 

Therefore it is clear comprehensive policies and programs are needed to address the inequalities experienced by the majority of the older population in Sri Lanka. Hence it must be recognised that the older population are contributors to sustainable development. Older women in particular need protection to ensure their wellbeing in old age.

This trend has several health implications, including the need for women’s healthcare services to address the healthcare needs of elderly women. Women need access to affordable and adequate healthcare services from infancy to adulthood in order to experience healthy ageing. In Sri Lanka women have access to good healthcare till they become mothers but these services lose their gender specificity afterwards. 

Healthcare providers must recognise the specific needs of older women and reorient existing programs to address them. Healthcare systems should also consider the development of home-based care services besides counselling and support services that recognise the needs of older women. As an entire population ages the number of younger people available to support one older person shrinks and households have to evolve more rapidly to face additional expenses, which can be difficult with slow economic growth. Stronger policy actions are imperative in order for older women to achieve an acceptable quality of life.

It is also important to support current working-age women’s employment participation, so that women can have a stable income during their working age, thus can plan and be prepared for retirement, reducing their vulnerability in their old age. Despite decades of free education, as little as 34% of women in Sri Lanka belong to the formal workforce. Their contribution in raising children, running households and caring for the elderly are not financially remunerated with many of these women finding it hard to be financially independent when they are older. Pension, provident fund and insurance schemes either do not reach these women or have limited impact, making the challenge even harder. Bridging these gaps is essential to ensuring Sri Lanka’s sustainable growth.