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The missing generation: capturing the true scale of violence against older people

Written by David Walker


Several months ago I discovered a research project that caught me off-guard. The project was about  developing and testing a tool to assess incidents of violence, abuse and neglect (VAN) affecting older people. Relative to the growth in funding allocated to addressing violence against women and girls in the past few decades, it is rare to see funding allocated to research on violence against older persons. This group and topic are often overlooked in development thinking. Our new tool, ideally combined with action by the UN, may help to reverse this trend.

A new approach is needed

Although the evidence unpacking the extent of VAN that older persons experience is limited and fragmented, it is easy to note the need for urgent action. A HelpAge review of recent studies across 18 countries revealed that between 11% and 83% of older people report being subject to some form of violence, abuse and neglect.

In Bangladesh, 54% of older women and 45% of older men have recently experienced physical violence. These figures are likely to be conservative given that studies also show that very few older people report experiences of VAN. There is a clear need for improving our understanding of the scale and characteristics of these issues.

Historically, there has been no way to standardise and centralise comparable data. This is a crucial failing because it means there is no universal metric or methodology for developing an evidence base on VAN against older people. Consequently, there is a clear need for a more comprehensive, implementable and reliable tool that will do this job.

In contrast, gender-based violence (GBV) practitioners have access to a UN-developed database capturing information from more than 20 countries. This provides an excellent resource for academics, non-governmental organisations and governments alike.

The need to capture missing data will only increase

The need to capture the missing data will increase as ageing populations grow. By 2050 there will be twice as many people over the age of 60 as there were as there were in the year 2000. Unless the response to VAN against older persons accelerates the problem will grow purely on the basis of a larger ageing population, as will associated costs and strains on public services.

To help address this situation, the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing should approve proposals to recognise the right of older people to protection from all forms of violence, abuse and neglect.

Addressing this gap in the UN rights framework will make it easier for states to address – or be held to account on - their obligations regarding the collection, disaggregation, analysis and utilisation of VAN-related data. Our new tool provides a starting point for that work.

A comprehensive new tool

Together with HelpAge and their affiliates, the ODI has developed a comprehensive tool to help interested parties begin navigating the VAN measurement and assessment gap. The tool is designed to have impact in four ways that other tools do not.

Firstly, it takes a multi-disciplinary perspective that has been downplayed in other VAN assessment tools. This means it not only looks at the incidence of violence but also examines other risk factors associated with older people’s experience; factors like their social environment.

Secondly, the tool enables an assessment of older people’s vulnerabilities, capacities and capabilities in responding to violence, abuse and neglect. This more positive side of violence assessment have been neglected in previous tools.

Thirdly, it includes an often absent component that looks at barriers and entry-points to VAN-related services. This evidence can then be related to thinking on violence linked to organisational structures– where harm that results from the deprivation of basic needs and denial of rights of people can be indirectly caused by low service delivery performance.

Finally, having been fully tested in several small communities in the Philippines and Moldova, the tool has been adjusted to cater for violence, abuse and neglect in different contexts. This is important because the majority of VAN tools have been developed in high income countries.

The result is a tool that provides a ‘wide’ approach to VAN assessments, instead of a ‘narrow’ approach that might be too niche, technical or insufficiently comparable to other datasets.

The tool should now be fully stress tested by different practitioners in a variety of contexts. Particularly in low-income and fragile state settings. Adaptations of the tool can then inform a more thorough global debate on a consolidated evidence base.

Ultimately, by providing a unique multidisciplinary perspective that looks at capacities as well as vulnerabilities, and by taking into account low and middle income country contexts, our tool offers a way to address shortcomings in the measurement, sharing, analysis and use of VAN-related data. It should be supported by action from the UN Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing who, by recognising the right of older people to live free from violence, abuse and neglect, can make it easier for states to act in a coordinated way.