Long lives aren't necessarily happy ones in Africa, particularly for women

Older women are often identified and witches and persecuted. DIFD/Flickr, CC BY

Around the world, people are living longer. Medical advances, improving health care systems and declining fertility rates have all contributed to this state of affairs.

In 1980, there were 378 million people aged 60 and older. Today the figure stands at 759 million, 10% of the global population. By 2050 it’s projected to almost triple – making older people around 21% of the world’s population.

Africa is no exception. This group is growing faster than the continent’s total population. People older than 60 make up 5% of Africa’s population; by 2050 it should sit at around 9%.

But long lives are not necessarily happy ones. Older people continue to experience isolation, poverty, abuse and violence with very little access to health services.

Worse, in some communities older women are targeted by being described as “witches”. They are chased from their homes, beaten and sometimes even murdered. This is particularly prevalent in Tanzania, Ghana and South Africa.

Legislation exists to protect these vulnerable groups. Some is specific to individual countries, while other protocols form part of international law. But people either don’t understand or don’t engage with these laws. More human rights education is crucial if what’s on paper and in law books is to become reality.

Older women in peril

It is particularly dangerous to be an elderly person in Tanzania’s rural areas and villages.

Data collected by HelpAge International, an organisation that works to help senior citizens live a more dignified and healthy life, shows that in 2012 in Tanzania more than 600 people, most of whom were women, were accused of witchcraft and murdered.

In 2013 the number rose to over 750. It has declined slightly since then, but remains high – around 400 people per year are murdered after being accused of witchcraft. Almost all of the victims were elderly, and most were women.

These victims are often singled out because of their physical features, particularly reddened eyes and bald heads. Their red eyes are caused by cooking in small, poorly ventilated homes. Many are also disabled in some way, suffering from the after effects of leprosy; physically handicapped or visually impaired.

Women who are labelled witches are blamed for a host of misfortunes. This includes droughts, family tragedies, impotence, infertility and illnesses like HIV/AIDS. Essentially, they become scapegoats.

Attacks are often driven by a group known as Sungusungu. It claims to be a crime prevention unit, protecting villagers in rural Tanzania from cattle rustlers and working towards safer communities. But a great deal of its focus is on controlling women’s behaviour.

Sungusungu presents itself as an organisation of “peacemakers”. But it uses violence, such as caning alleged criminals in front of the whole village, to resolve community disputes.

The government has prosecuted some of these so-called “witch killers”. This hasn’t done anything to dissuade those who violently target elderly women. In fact, some village councils and traditional healers actively support these activities. They think that “witch killings” will rid their communities of bad luck.

What can be done to change these superstitions and misconceptions? Legislation provides a starting point to enforce women’s rights, but more work is needed to help people understand and obey the law.

Legislation exists

A number of laws and frameworks exist specifically to protect women on the continent. There’s a Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Women in Africa and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa.

The protocol is especially forward thinking in that it outlines special protection for elderly women and women with disabilities. It is complemented by the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

But most of this excellent legislation is never shared with ordinary people. In Tanzania, the majority of legislation is made available on websites in English. But Swahili is the country’s official language.

Documents and protocols should be translated into local languages, including Swahili, and distributed in hard copy to communities. This takes legislation to the people who most need to understand it and enact its values.

There are other measures that can be taken to educate ordinary Tanzanians about protocols that look good on paper but don’t manifest in daily life.

Possible solutions

The government should also consider funding the development of literature about older people, their rights and the myths about them. It could also ask international aid agencies and donor countries to insist on policies and education programmes about the plight of older people. These international organisations, which hold vital purse strings, could bring pressure to bear.

There is also a lot of room to enhance human rights education at community level. Local government leaders like councillors, street leaders and religious leaders ought to be involved in providing such education, since they are in the heart of communities and have great influence.

Finally, specialised human rights education training programmes should be developed for police officers and prosecutors. This is crucial to ensure that prosecutions continue and the people who target elderly women are brought to justice.

The Conversation

The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.