How Older Women are Driving Social Change in India

An older woman speaks at a community meeting

     By Prakash Tyagi, Executive Director, GRAVIS

Older women are one of the most marginalized groups in the Thar region of Northwest India. Growing up in villages that favored boys over girls, they were at the losing end when food was scarce. Their access to nutrition mirrored their access to an education — limited at best. Because school was often out of reach, older women are one of the most illiterate groups of India.

The years of discrimination endured by these women have come home to roost in the form of poorer health, exclusion from property ownership, and reduced access to social protection. GRAVIS, the HelpAge network affiliate in India, has been working in Thar since 1983, and saw first-hand the challenges specific to women in older age.

But we also knew that older women had a tremendous amount to offer.

Older women in particular possess strong traditional knowledge of sustainable agriculture and water management practices. Many are also relied upon in their villages to care for young children. These women, despite their social and economic disadvantage, had potential to be community leaders and drivers of positive social change.

We reached out to nearly 50,000 older women living in 1,000 villages across the Thar Desert, setting out to increase leadership roles for older women in Older People’s associations (OPAs); we worked with older women to establish and strengthen Self-Help Groups (SHGs) that support women of all ages; and we developed programs to meet their health, nutrition and sanitation needs, which were so often overlooked.

Our engagement of older women has paid off in spades. At the community level, the participation of older women in the OPAs has led to the construction of khadins, a traditional system for harvesting run-off water for agriculture; establishing seed banks; and increasing distribution of organic fertilizers and bio-pesticides. These projects have helped strengthen food security in one of the most arid, impoverished regions in the world.

"These women, despite their social and economic disadvantage, had potential to be community leaders and drivers of positive social change"

Older women are also catalyzing positive change in their villages for younger generations. Having felt the debilitating effects of illiteracy their whole lives, older women are active in encouraging young girls to attend school and complete their education. Through GRAVIS-organized self-care training sessions, older women are passing on knowledge of healthy behaviors and practices, enabling younger women to age in better health.

Illustration — Ida Shiang for HelpAge Illustration — Ida Shiang for HelpAge On a national scale, older women are emerging as leading advocates for greater inclusion in public health. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), launched in 2005, is one of India’s largest public health programs, dedicated to providing affordable healthcare access to the country’s impoverished, rural residents. Organized older women in the OPAs and SHGs are lobbying health officials for better primary care services and medical providers that are better trained on the prevention and management of non-communicable diseases.

We’re living in an exciting time for social change. The needs of women and girls are now at the forefront of the larger humanitarian agenda and a core tenet of the Sustainable Development Goals. Women-led movements such as #MeToo and #TimesUp are calling for an end to society’s long-held blind eye to sexual harassment and discrimination. In all these positive movements, however, older women are often left out of the conversation. But we at GRAVIS know all too well that the potential for women to lead and contribute does not diminish with age. In the global movement for gender equality, diversity in all its forms is essential, including age.

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