The horrors of elder abuse in KZN must be adressed, along with policy problems

2013-09-17 00:00

HORRIFIC acts of abuse and violence are perpetrated daily against older women in KwaZulu-Natal. Advanced age does not seem to prevent the women from being subjected to violent sexual attacks.

A 91-year-old woman was attacked and repeatedly raped in her home in Mpumuza by a 22-year-old man recently. A 74-year-old grandmother was raped, stabbed in the head and robbed in her flat in Bisley, Pietermaritzburg. Such invasion of older women’s minds and bodies provokes an overwhelming emotional response.

These attacks are only some of the forms of abuse and violence that women report and seek help for at the advice offices of the Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD) in KZN. The violence is perpetrated mainly against black African women. “The attacks reflect the high level of violence against women in the country in general,” says Professor Monica Ferreira, president of International Longevity Centre-South Africa at the University of Cape Town. “However, sexual attacks against older women are distinctively abhorrent in their brutality and are devastating for the victims,” she adds.

Community-based paralegals at the CCJD advice offices deal with such issues on a daily basis as people, primarily African women in underresourced areas, take their problems to them. Of the clients who visit the advice offices, about eight percent are women over 60 years. Their problems also include other types of abuse. Numerous older clients, both women and men, complain that their adult children show them no respect, or abuse them physically, emotionally or financially. Often these adults are addicted to alcohol or drugs, and the older women fear for their safety. Others complain that they are left alone at home during the day, without food or someone to help care for them. Many report they are left with young grandchildren or a sick relative to care for. A great number complain that their children take their pension money.

Some of the women, particularly those who live in rural areas, report that they live in fear of being accused of witchcraft and the dire consequences that follow. Such older women are often hounded from their home and village, and their assets seized — incredibly, by their children or other community members, or even hired thugs. Others tell of impoverishment after their husband’s death, when male relatives seized the couple’s property, and the woman is left homeless and destitute. A significant number of complaints dealt with by CCJD paralegals pertain to material losses and family strife, including exploitation and extortion, particularly control of, or conflict over pension money.

Systemic abuse is also commonly reported. Typically, they refer to dehumanising treatment at pension pay points, in public health-care facilities and from government offices. They complain about inadequate housing and a lack of sanitation. Some complain of being marginalised by new government policy and service delivery, which they perceive favours children and the youth.

What are the reasons for this abuse? Granted, elder abuse is a global phenomenon, but the sexual abuse of older women in South Africa is particularly violent and abhorrent. This form of abuse is poorly understood and is in all likelihood underreported. The situation calls for urgent, remedial action, and the position of older people in contemporary South African society warrants critical reflection.

The abuse occurs at a time in a woman’s life when her physical, mental, social and financial capacities are declining, and she herself may be in need of care, rather than be a carer. Older women tend to have a host of care-giving responsibilities thrust upon them, which may verge on exploitation.

Older people are also vulnerable to political discrimination. Several of the country’s policies are both age and gender discriminatory. An example of such discrimination is the lack of legal clarity in current policies on land possession by women and children. Political and ideological abuse of older people may indeed be real.

Economist Ousmane Faye of Nigeria is critical of government priorities that overlook or neglect older people, and the contention that there is no “social payoff” in supporting them. On the contrary, policy support for older people, followed by prioritised planning and implementation, has been widely shown to benefit entire households, promote social cohesion and forge development broadly. Grandmothers’ voluntary sharing of their social-pension money with other household members is a case in point.

Rapid social change in the country, effects of the HIV/Aids epidemic, middle-generation migration and urbanisation trends, and the consequent radical changes in family structures and living arrangements, are altering the landscape in which people grow old. Far greater responsibility for family and household maintenance now falls on older women than previously. The number of skipped-generation households, in which no middle-generation family member is present, is burgeoning. Increasingly, older people live alone, with attendant risks of neglect and isolation.

South Africa has a policy for the care of older people, although it is fairly circumscribed by the Social Development ministry’s interpretation of its mandate. And it has legislation in the Older Persons Act, No. 13 of 2006, the draft regulations for the implementation of which were gazetted on April 1, 2010. Social old-age pensions paid to some 80% of older people are life sustaining in a sense. However, the fragmentation of responsibilities across different government departments that are responsible for older people’s wellbeing is counter-productive. Planning for concrete action, and the actual implementation of strategies and programmes is wanting.

In this situation, paralegals such as those at CCJD, which are based in under-resourced communities, are able to provide support and enable access to justice. Through their relationships with community, police, magistrates, traditional structures, government services, other NGOs, and significantly, their personal commitment, they provide help. They employ creative and holistic methods, including legal means, counselling, mediation with families and communities, and education on people’s rights. They find material support and engage with traditional authorities to find solutions to complex problems.

The number of older people in South Africa and their percentage of the total population are set to soar in the coming decades. People aged 60 years and over, number four million and constitute 7,8% of the total population. These figures are projected to grow to 8,4 million and 14,8%, respectively, by 2050. The United Nations Population Division shows that the greatest growth will occur in the 80 years and over group: the number of these people will rise from 324 000 in 2012, to 1,2 million in 2050. Women in this age group will be more numerous than men, as women tend to live longer than men, and these women will be particularly vulnerable.

This short piece has just skimmed the surface of the multiple issues concerning older people in South Africa. Essential work is being done by well-known national NGOs, such as Age-in-Action, HelpAge South Africa, and others, including community-based paralegals throughout the country.

However, far greater attention is needed in all sectors, including government, NGOs, legal institutions, religious bodies, academia and schools, to address the plight of older people, bearing in mind the substantial contribution they make on a daily basis to family, community and social life.

• Dr Karen Buckenham is research director at the Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD) in Pietermaritzburg, and an honourary research fellow in the school of law at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

• With thanks to Professor Monica Ferreira of the International Longevity Centre in South Africa for her input on this article.

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