Avoiding Inter-Generational Gender Traps

14 Aug

As many readers of this Blog already know, the primary preoccupation of GAPW is with the ‘gender dimensions’ of UN policies – from peacekeeping and disarmament to youth leadership and social development.   Together with program partners at UN headquarters and in many communities and countries worldwide, we are convinced that efforts to promote women’s full participation in political and social life, as well as ending impunity for gender violence (which itself constitutes a significant barrier to participation) are key to both effective international security and the promotion of sustainable development priorities.

A gender lens is also valuable in approaching the Fourth session of the Open Ended Working Group on Aging.  It is true, as a brochure distributed by the Subcommittee on Older Women notes, that “older men and women both face age discrimination but older women also face cumulative effects of gender discrimination throughout their lives, including less access to education and health services, lower earning capacity and limited access to rights to land ownership, contributing to their vulnerability in old age.”

But there are other vulnerabilities for older women which are cultural in origin, and which may constitute the ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination.  In my years of providing faith-based counseling for communities of largely older women and in my current work characterized in part by providing mentoring options for women working at UN headquarters, it is clear that older and younger women remain disconnected, that most younger women do not have older women who are not their mothers as ‘accompanying elders’ in their lives and, perhaps most relevant in this context, that younger women are not prepared (and indeed are largely ignoring) the long term, “cumulative” effects of all aspects of this subtle gender discrimination, but especially those aspects that are embedded in cultures that value physical beauty over character and worldly riches over connection.

Despite the dramatic anxiety that too often accompanies women in the early years of their life journey, these women often believe that they can alleviate some of the implications of anxiety and develop a competitive edge by ‘purchasing the surfaces.’   In this context, that means spending lots of energy on the things that win approval of peers and family members – focusing on enhancing physical beauty, having a clearly articulate career path, finding a mate and engaging in conventional family life.

None of these are problematic in themselves, perhaps aside from their implications for the lives of many women as they age.  Eventually, the wrinkles cannot be hidden, the hair greys, joints ache more often, life partners become more sporadically attentive, children move to distant cities, skills that defined a career are supplanted by new technology in younger hands.

In other words, the things of their youth that made these women ‘valuable’ in the eyes of their societies (and often in their own eyes as well) begin to slip away, sometimes slowly, other times with a speed that would shock a gazelle.

Many older women report feeling ‘invisible.’   The world’s attention has flowed elsewhere.   And sadly and unacceptably, respect and appreciation, including too often from younger women, flow away as well.

When that happens, the capacity for generosity is compromised.   The capacity to communicate hope through the aches of aging is undermined as well.  Prospects for life-giving connectivity are reduced to peer groups that are sometimes more restricted than the relationships of school – needlessly age and class specific.

In such circumstances, women are the losers.  Indeed, we are all the losers.    The ‘cumulative’ effects that lead too often to social isolation, feelings of ‘invisibility’ and other psychic deficits are, especially in western societies, undermining respectful and dignified engagements with the ‘last years,’ years that we are all destined to face and for which we are so often emotionally and materially unprepared.

As important as the Convention proposed by delegates to this Working Group would be, these psychic deficits cannot be addressed solely by recourse to resource-focused policies.   This is a problem that will more likely be solved through a robust, multi-generational engagement, an engagement that requires older women to be transparent about the ‘traps’ that they fell victim to in their early years, and younger women who are demonstrably less and less content to rely for their self-worth on things they will surely lose long before their life cycles have run their course.

This ‘final frontier’ of gender discrimination is deeply embedded and too rarely interrogated.   As we lobby for more health, employment and education options for aging populations, we should commit to expose the cultural ‘traps’ that keep too many younger women anxious and too many older women invisible.

Dr. Robert Zuber

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One Response to “Avoiding Inter-Generational Gender Traps”

  1. birgitstoeckl August 14, 2013 at 10:30 am #

    Reblogged this on gender:visual:communication.

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