Under-Diagnosed and Often Overlooked: Elder Abuse in South Africa

This article is the first part of a two-part series on elder abuse in South Africa. Click here to read Part 2.


This year marks the tenth anniversary of World Elder Abuse Awareness Day (WEAAD). The United Nations established WEAAD to bring communities around the globe together in raising awareness about elder abuse. Although this problem is considered a public health issue, the World Health Organization has recognized that elder abuse remains a taboo which is often underestimated and ignored by many societies. This problem is perpetuated by societal attitudes and a lack of public knowledge about elder abuse. The abuse of older people is often viewed as a personal matter – it is not openly discussed. As a result, the prevalence of elder abuse is under-reported worldwide.

In South Africa, organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre in Cape Town are helping those affected by elder abuse.  Dorothy Gertse the head Social Worker at the center reports that a growing number of elderly women are seeking assistance due to abuse by younger relatives. Elder abuse is a broad term that is comprised of various acts such as physical, sexual, emotional, and verbal abuse, neglect, exploitation, abandonment, and financial/economic abuse.

South Africa is currently experiencing a rise in economic abuse– individuals are seeking access to financial resources such as pensions and the homes of vulnerable older adults. Gertse states that family members are escorting the elderly to pension pay points and confiscating their finances. The rate of abuse has increased within the last 6 years; Femada Shamam, Chief Operating Officer for the Association for the Aged reports that in the 2010-2011 there were 1458 reported cases; this rose to 2497 cases in the 2012-2013 financial year.

The Older Person’s Act exists within South Africa’s Constitution and outlines the government’s obligation to protect the rights and uphold the safety of older persons. However, Shamam reports that many are unfamiliar with the act, and their role in upholding it. He states, “If you go to the police to report an incident, they wouldn’t know they have the authority to remove the alleged perpetrators.” Thankfully organizations like the Saartje Baartman Centre and The Go Turquoise for the Elderly are creating awareness surrounding issues faced by older persons in South Africa.

Andria Reta covers Africa for Global Health Aging. She is a Gerontologist and Professor of Health Administration.

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