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Older Refugees Find No Shelter From Violence

A first-of-its-kind report documents that older people living in refugee camps and other situations of displacement experience sexual and other types of gender-based violence and that the camps lack services to help them.

The AAAS report, “Age is No Protection,” was written in collaboration with HelpAge, a non-governmental organization. HelpAge initiated the study—which took place at five sites: two in Uganda, one in Iraqi Kurdistan, one in Pakistan, and one in Panama — to determine the prevalence of gender-based violence among persons over the age of 49 living in situations of protracted displacement and to assess whether the perception that the needs of displaced older people were being overlooked was correct.

“They thought, ‘We really need to document this, It’s not limited to women of childbearing age or even to women,’” said Theresa Harris, project director with the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. “‘Can we pin down what may be happening in the camps now?’”

South Sudanese refugees arriving at a refugee settlement in Uganda, one of the countries studied. | EC/ECHO/Malini Morzaria

According to U.S. and international agencies, more than 65 million people around the world have been forcibly displaced from their homes, and the average duration of their displacement is 26 years. An estimated 3-5 million of these displaced people are over age 49, but little is known about their experiences with gender violence and their access to services, because studies and services related to such violence have mostly been targeted at people under 50.

“Older adults are often overlooked when thinking about groups at risk of sexual and gender-based violence,” said Patrick Vinck, assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and research director at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative. As a research adviser to the study, Vinck helped develop its methodology and analysis of the results. “Recognizing the extent and importance of the issue is a major step toward designing an appropriate response.”

The study found that one in seven older people in the selected camps experienced some form of domestic violence, abuse or neglect by a household member other than an intimate partner in the year previous to the survey. One in seven also reported having suffered violence committed by their intimate partners. 

To protect the study respondents — a particularly vulnerable population because of their age, their displacement and possibly their gender — AAAS assisted in the careful design of the study with a research ethicist. Local interviewers were selected to make sure the surveys were sensitive to local languages and customs. A total of 18 researchers, from the AAAS On-call Scientists initiative, participated as volunteers.

“The AAAS mission calls on us to use science as a tool in support of evidence-based policymaking,” said Jessica Wyndham, interim director of the AAAS Scientific Responsibility, Human Rights and Law Program. “This project engaged a team of statisticians, survey methodologists and public health experts to answer a question — What is the prevalence of gender-based violence among displaced people over 49? — and to inform policy decisions about future funding needs and service provision.”

While providing crucial documentation of the problem, the study points to the need for more research.

“There is still a great deal of research that needs to be done,” said Kate Bunting, HelpAge USA chief executive officer, “to understand how the intersection of age and gender make older people vulnerable and how to address these vulnerabilities in an effective manner.”