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Reject sexism and ageism that drives abuse and poverty

October 1, 2020 / Patty Kinnersly

Today marks the UN’s International Day of the Older Person, and this year the focus is on raising awareness of the needs of older people during the pandemic. The pandemic has been a serious health concern for older people in Tasmania, where 1 in 5 people are aged 60 years and over.

But it has also had other impacts across the country, including contributing to an increase in violence against women. Australian Institute of Criminology research shows that 33 per cent of these women were experiencing violence for the first time.

These impacts were felt locally too – at the height of the pandemic, Tasmanian family violence and women’s legal services experienced a rapid increase in demand, and expressed fears that even greater numbers of women were unable to access help due to social isolation.

As a result of ageism, lack of awareness and fear of speaking out, older women are often invisible in media and public discussion of violence against women. Older women who live with a disability may also experience additional barriers to reporting or receiving help, especially if their abuser is also their carer.

Violence against women, including older women, is not new. While COVID-19 has increased many stressors, evidence shows that it’s the underlying social condition of gender inequality drives violence against women. Older women face the combined impacts of inequality and ageism, which can drive abuse or violence against them.

Importantly, violence against women is also not inevitable, working together, we can prevent violence against women by addressing the drivers. The drivers of gendered violence include the condoning of violence against women, men’s control of decision-making and limits to women’s independence, in both public life and relationships, rigid gender roles and identities, and forms of masculinity that emphasise aggression and disrespect towards women.

Social crises like COVID-19 can exacerbate these underlying conditions. Of particular concern is the negative impact on older women’s financial security and independence. For example, the COVID-19 early release super scheme has seen 30,000 Tasmanians withdraw $300 million dollars from their superannuation. More of these withdrawals were from women, many of whom were in the female-dominated industries such as hospitality and tourism where increased rates of unemployment or underemployment as a result of the pandemic.

Withdrawing money from superannuation has lifelong effects on women’s financial security. Unless they make additional deposits in the future, they face a significant reduction in retirement income. This is particularly concerning given existing rates of poverty among older women. Australian Bureau of Statistics data shows that on average, Australian women retire with 43 per cent less superannuation than men, and women over 55 are the largest growing group experiencing homelessness, with an increase of 31 per cent between 2011 and 2016.

The current situation is not only a crisis, it’s an opportunity. As we rebuild and recover from the health, economic and social crisis, everyone has a role, governments can introduce measures that support women’s employment, reduce the numbers of women living in poverty and support financial security and independence for women, including older women. As individuals, we can reject sexism and ageism and challenge disrespect towards women, including older women.

Employers can provide equal work opportunities, tackling age discrimination and creating safe workplaces that promote respect. Together with governments they must continue to work to close the superannuation and retirement gap, as well the gender pay gap, which according to the Workplace Gender Equality Agency remains at 9 per cent in Tasmania.

Together we must do more to create a society in which older women can enjoy safety, financial security, equality and respect. Not only on International Day of the Older Person, but every day.

This op-ed was first published in The Mercury on October 1, 2020.

Find out more about our work to end violence against women in Australia.

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