The Council on the Ageing ACT (COTA) is choosing to challenge the constellation of issues women face as they age, which place them at heightened risk of homelessness and financial insecurity.
In the wake of International Women’s Day (8 March), the Royal Commission into Aged Care and the sexual assault allegations that have rocked Parliament House, COTA ACT hosted the panel discussion on 10 March to draw attention to the challenges older women face, including years of unpaid caring, wage inequities, less secure work tenure, insufficient superannuation, relationship breakdown and the rising costs of living.
ACT Deputy Chief Minister, Yvette Berry launched the event and said following the economic impacts women faced due to the COVID-19 pandemic, she believes that “now is the time to make changes”.
“Last year was a difficult year for women; we really did take the brunt of the response to COVID on behalf of our community. Women and girls were affected by the economic challenges, in particular housing and homelessness,” Ms Berry said.
Research into the gendered impacts of COVID-19 showed that Australian women faced more insecurity compared to previous recessions, with disproportionate unemployment and a decrease of wages during the pandemic.
It was also found that with children at home due to COVID-19, women were more likely to care for them full-time on their own. According to COTA, disruptions to employment histories due to caring means women retire with less superannuation and savings and are more likely to be in poverty than men.
CEO of COTA ACT, Jenny Mobbs, said housing, finance and health are interconnected issues that are affecting the ageing women of Canberra, especially in the wake of the pandemic.
“If you’re not healthy then you can’t hold down a job and earn a good wage. If you can’t hold down a good job and earn a wage, you can’t afford a house. So, all of those things, health, house and finance, all of those are interlinked and if you don’t have one, the other two suffer … These things are very important to older women in particular.”
According to COTA, the consequences of gender inequity experienced over a lifetime can have an accumulative effect on a woman in later life. Statistics show that in 2020, over 400,000 women over 45 years of age were at risk of homelessness while single older women comprise a rapidly growing cohort facing housing insecurity and the risk of homelessness.
However, CEO of Women’s Health Matters, Marcia Williams said the general belief is “it’s not the same for women in the ACT”.
“We’re all wealthier apparently and all better off … We surveyed women in the 55-plus age group and 49% of those older women reported their physical health was fair, poor or very poor,” she said. “35% of the older women rated their mental health as fair, poor or very poor. That’s more than doubled from 2018.”
Cathi Moore AM sits on the board of both ACTCOSS and Community Housing Canberra. She believes most emerging housing issues in the ACT come from family breakdown.
“For the women who are facing what I would call housing uncertainty, it was the first time in their lives they’ve confronted such an issue; 75% were still employed and yet they had significant housing vulnerability,” Ms Moore said.
“It’s a pretty salutary thought that in the ACT there were groups of people who were facing housing uncertainty and as you get older, the options of what you can peruse in the marketplace get more limited.”
ACT Assistant Minister for Seniors, Veterans and Community Services, Emma Davidson, believes that to solve one of the issues older women face, you must solve the others in conjunction.
“This year’s International Women’s Day theme is ‘Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a COVID-19 world’. If we combine that with the ‘Choose to Challenge’ theme, then we have choose to challenge for leadership.
“Unfortunately, we still know there are significant barriers to women’s leadership. In the last few weeks, our community has been engrossed in conversation about violence against women by political leaders and this comes on top of the recent release of the Aged Care Royal Commission reports spotlighting systemic abuse of older people in our communities,” she said.
“One thing that really struck me was how much harder it has become for women over the last couple of years, partly in relation to the COVID pandemic … the impact that the isolation has on women’s lives, access to services and the impact on their financial equality,” she said.
Ms Davidson said that the community can begin to challenge the heightened risk older women face by “valuing what women bring to our community”.
“It’s about thinking about our community as a society, not just as an economy. Not everything is about the dollar value; it’s actually about the human value and that’s what women really bring to our community and they should feel valued and supported in doing so,” she said.
“This is why it’s so important we have days like International Women’s Day because this is ongoing work. Women have been doing this work for decades, for centuries, working to challenge those structures that are preventing women from being able access all the services and support they need to achieve equality and to be respected as leaders in their community.”