I have noticed in recent years, since my hair turned gray, that people mistake me for other women and mistake other women for me.The other women may be older, or younger, than me, our only visible commonality being gray hair. Are all gray-haired women alike? Perhaps it’s a truth, as I have heard it said, that when a woman’s hair turns gray, she becomes invisible. Have I then become invisible?
Women are the majority of the older population in virtually all nations of the world. In both the developing and developed world older women are victims of poverty, of inequality, and of violence and abuse.
Older women are often considered no longer economically or reproductively useful, and many are seen as a burden on their families and communities. They are marginalized, isolated and even abandoned.
Sukumuland in Tanzania is a traditional and conservative area where reliance on spiritual belief is ingrained into the fabric of daily life. Belief in witchcraft and faith in the rhetoric of traditional healers are manifested in the persecution of older women for events that have no rational explanation – HIV/AIDS deaths, infertility, drought and crop failure.
Villages along the shores of Lake Victoria have encountered escalating numbers of murders: mostly older women, who have been accused of witchcraft. HelpAge International estimates that as many as 1,000 witchcraft-related killings occur in Tanzania annually.
Association for Women and Environment in Burkina Faso was created in Ouagadougou in 2000 to combat discrimination against women, particularly against widows, women living with AIDS, and older women accused of witchcraft.
Envejecer Juntas (Grow Old Together) was founded in Aibonito, Puerto Rico in 2004 by a group of older feminist lawyers, sociologists, and activists who, not having an established retirement plan, recognized that services available to older women, particularly those living alone, were severely lacking in their region. The group comments that "The issue of aging is not discussed and we avoid addressing it until we are already old women. To be an old woman is a shame and it is necessary to hide it in every way. However it constitutes a natural occurrence from which we cannot escape." The group adds that “The only women over 65 who are accepted are grandmothers; we are seen as incapable, asexualized, our abilities are negated and the sexuality of an elderly woman is a source of repugnance and mocking."
The group’s priority is to advocate for public policies that will improve the lives of its participants and other women of la tercera edad, or "the third age," "especially against violence and mistreatment of older women and laws that include more health and social benefits, and funds for their physical and emotional well-being."
They came for Lemi Ndaki in the night. "I was sleeping when I heard a noise," explains the 70-year-old Tanzanian grandmother. "There was no security in my hut and the door was easy to open. I got up to see about the noise and someone grabbed me and chopped off my arm with a machete. I think he came to chop my neck but I raised my hand and he only took my arm."
A neighbor heard her cries and took her to the hospital in Mwanza, the nearest city, a three-hour drive away on the shore of Lake Victoria. "They couldn't put my arm back on and the scar still hurts, especially when I'm cold." That is not surprising: the open bone still pokes out from the skin below her elbow, 19 years later.
Other elderly women in her village, Mwamagigisi, haven't been so lucky. Ng'wana Budodi was shot in the head with an arrow. Kabula Lubambe and Helena Mabula were knifed to death. Ng'wana Ng'ombe was also murdered with a machete, and when her mud hut was set alight, her husband, Sami, was burnt alive.
This is the fate awaiting thousands of old people, mostly women, who are accused of witchcraft in this rural and isolated corner of east Africa. The killings are escalating in many areas, perhaps numbering more than 1,000 a year, but the Tanzanian government and police do nothing to stop them.
Lillian Cincone is the Special Projects Coordinator for the Global Fund for Women.