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How can Asia-Pacific handle population ageing?

Gender equality lies at the heart of the solutions.

Bjorn Andersson  Asia-Pacific Regional Director, United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA)

拡大Education for the elderly, Nepal ©Ageing Nepal)

Population ageing in the Asia-Pacific

More and more countries across Asia and the Pacific are confronting the demographic reality of population ageing, a shift that governments often view as a threat to sustainable development, including economic growth. But this challenge can be converted into an opportunity for wellbeing and prosperity, if strategies and policies put gender equality firmly at the centre.

Globally, the number of older persons is forecast to exceed 2 billion by 2050. By then, nearly two-thirds of the world’s older people – close to 1.3 billion – will be living in Asia-Pacific, with one in four people across the region expected to be over 60, increasing to one in three people in North-east and East Asia.

Women currently constitute over half – some 54% – of the older demographic in Asia-Pacific, but represent an even greater majority, 61%, of the “oldest old” population of 80 years and older, representing the ‘feminization of ageing.’

Elder women at higher risk of falling into poverty

拡大An elderly couple on a stroll, China©UNFPA China

Longevity is a triumph of development, from lower fertility linked to successful voluntary family planning and better health outcomes, reflecting an improved quality of life. But this shift also has complex implications, which governments and civil society must jointly tackle.

With insecure incomes, a lack of assets and insufficient social safety nets, far too many senior citizens are already struggling to get by, with many slipping into extreme poverty.

Older women especially are more vulnerable, exacerbated by the disadvantages they face not only in their later years, but from the very beginning of life itself.

Consider a woman now entering her seventh decade in the village where she was born and raised. As with so many of her generation, she was made to marry as an adolescent, with minimum education. She had children early; the pregnancies were unplanned; and childbirth was risky. Her husband, many years her senior, died a long while ago, leaving her a widow, unprepared to enter the workforce and unable to properly fend for herself.

This story is not uncommon; we see it repeated in many places, in many contexts.

If women could decide for themselves…

拡大Inter-generational efforts to addressing population ageing are taking shape in Viet Nam©UNFPA Viet Nam
Now imagine if she had been able to complete higher education; achieve gainful employment; marry as an adult, if she chose to marry; decide whether to have children, when and how many; and, ultimately, enjoy a secure old age.

This optimal pathway reflects the vision of individual rights and choices – with a focus on sexual and reproductive health and reproductive rights - at the heart of sustainable development across the life cycle, grounded firmly in gender equality.

This is the vision articulated by the Programme of Action that emerged from the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development in Cairo, unanimously agreed upon by 179 countries.

The need for policies based on gender equality

ICPD makes it clear that success in tackling population ageing does not exist in a vacuum, but is connected to how wisely a country invests in its entire population, in a holistic way.

It may sound obvious, but gender equality across all spheres of life – including the home as well as the workplace - is critical.

There are compelling data that couples who share housework on a more gender-equal basis, or who can avail of equitable maternity and paternity leave policies and benefits after the birth of a child, are more likely to have a second child.

Countries concerned about very low fertility and population ageing should promote and bring about equitable policies grounded in gender equality, creating a fairer and more just world for all.

What governments should not do is push pro-natalist policies that seek to compel women to have more children as a response to low fertility and population ageing.

Such reactions, increasingly being seen amid rising conservatism globally, are counter-productive - ignoring the ground realities of people’s lives and undermining their rights and choices, thus jeopardizing the gains made under ICPD.

拡大Elderly women are often caregivers for their grandchildren, despite their own economic challenges, Myanmar©Age International)

Political leadership that encompasses the future

拡大Nairobi Summit on ICPD25 will be held on 12-14 November in Nairobi
A sound response to population ageing ultimately requires a coalition of far-sighted political leadership that seeks to re-ignite and accelerate the ICPD movement, without which we cannot fulfill the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and its Sustainable Development Goals with their pledge of leaving no one behind.

We call upon governments to overcome their concerns regarding population ageing and develop innovative strategies and solutions with gender equality and rights at the core. The very future of Asia and the Pacific – and the region’s women in particular - depends on it.

October 1 marked the International Day of Older Persons, an observance that takes on increasing urgency with each passing year. In November, UNFPA with the Governments of Kenya and Denmark will convene the ICPD25 Nairobi Summit, to seek renewed commitments from governments towards the unfinished business of ICPD. The need to tackle population ageing strategically – and holistically – will be prominent on the agenda.

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筆者

Bjorn Andersson

Bjorn Andersson  Asia-Pacific Regional Director, United Nations Population Fund(UNFPA)

Björn Andersson joined the Asia-Pacific Regional Office of the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) as its Director in September 2017. Prior to this appointment, Mr. Andersson served as Chief of Staff to two Executive Directors of UNFPA, Dr Babatunde Osotimehin from 2013 to 2017 and Thoraya Ahmed Obaid from 2003 to 2008. Mr Andersson has almost three decades of extensive experience in international development cooperation with key positions in programme management, policy development and strategic organizational management, in the UN System and government agencies. Mr Andersson entered the United Nations system as a Junior Professional Officer in the UN Population Division working on preparations for the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD), whose Programme of Action subsequently served as a foundation for much of the work UNFPA does today. He subsequently joined UNFPA where he worked as a Programme Officer in Zimbabwe and as a Coordination Officer in New York. In 1998 Mr Andersson returned to his home country Sweden, where be successively held positions with the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency (SIDA) and the Swedish Ministry for Foreign Affairs, including as Deputy Director at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs from 2000 to 2003. From 2008 to 2013 Mr Andersson was Director of the Department for Development Policy at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Sweden, where he led a team of senior experts in various areas related to international development cooperation, including population and development, gender equality, economic growth, the environment, good governance, health and education. During this period, Mr. Anderson also served as Sweden’s Chief Negotiator for the United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20). Mr Andersson holds a Master of Science degree in Horticultural Sciences from the University of Agricultural Sciences in Uppsala, Sweden. His studies focused on economic aspects of horticulture production, international rural development and political science. Mr Andersson has also completed specific courses in population and development at Princeton University, New Jersey, USA.