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The need to invest in women to ensure the well-being of older people – Monash Lens

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Asia is facing a unique demographic crisis. By 2050, the continent will have more than a billion elderly people, the highest number in the world.

For decades, social demand for elderly care has had unintended consequences for women in some Asian countries, such as China, India and Vietnam.

An aging mother is seen by many in patriarchal Asia as an unwanted burden, putting them at greater risk of poverty later in life.

There is a societal expectation for older women to spend their years with their children, especially their sons.

However, new research in Thailand shows that when older women live with daughters, they can expect happier outcomes.

The research also shows that living with daughters with a university degree further increases happiness in old age. Additional benefits of living with daughters include reduced feelings of loneliness, improved self-reported health status, and improved financial circumstances.

Overall, our results suggest that living with daughters can help reduce gender inequality in old age. But they also indicate the lasting influence of culture.

Asia’s changing demographic landscape

Gender inequality manifests itself in premature mortality among girls and women, and is the culmination of various forms of neglect, reinforced by society’s preference for a son.

Over the past fifty years, this has resulted in significant gender inequality, with the number of ‘missing women’ – those who never reached adulthood – doubling to 142 million in 2020.

The population is shrinking in China, Japan and South Korea. While Southeast Asia continues to grow, countries such as Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are also aging rapidly.

More than half of the region’s older population are women, many of whom are victims of multiple forms of economic discrimination and social exclusion.

Inequalities between men and women in labor force participation and pay combine to create a gender gap in old-age pensions, meaning women have less savings in old age.

In Asian societies with limited public services, intergenerational family support is the most important form of social protection in old age. Family solidarity is key to fulfilling the UN Decade of Healthy Aging 2021-2030.

Forms of support from children to older parents include caregiving, financial support, emotional support, and companionship. These together can improve subjective well-being in old age.

However, as older parents increasingly rely on their adult children for elder care, another form of gender bias in caregiving is emerging. Cultural norms also play a role in determining who takes responsibility for caring for aging parents.

Close-up of a smiling older Asian woman placing her hand on the hand of a younger person on her shoulder

Sons and daughters are not equal

In most parts of the developing countries of Asia, girls are neglected from childhood. This accumulation of lifelong neglect diminishes her value and reinforces the social attitude of older women as a burden or unwanted.

Proverbs such as “raising a daughter is like watering your neighbor’s garden,” based on widespread perceptions of women’s inferior social status, have discouraged investment in girls in India.

In Vietnam, only sons carry on the family name, which prompts the authors of the novel When the lights are off to write: “Having one boy means having an heir, while having ten girls means having no offspring.”

In both countries it is the norm for older parents to live with their sons. Daughters tend to move to their husband’s house after marriage, and are more likely to care for their mother-in-law than their own mother.

Scientific research confirms that most elderly people in Vietnam live with a married son.

In India, up to 79% of elderly people live with their sons, while only 39% live with daughters.

In China, only a handful (4.82% of fathers and 6.46% of mothers) choose to live with their daughters.

In Thailand, 29% and 32% of elderly people live with sons and daughters, respectively.

Removing social biases that favor sons can be just as valuable for parents in aging societies.

In Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, women do not face extreme forms of birth discrimination, such as female infanticide, as was the case in China, India and Vietnam, leading to reports of a shortage of potential women in China.

The sex ratio at birth in Thailand has been stable and balanced over the past fifty years, with the majority of Thais wanting at least one child of each gender.

In Thailand, daughters are more likely to be valued as much as sons. In the famous Thai novel Four governmentsthe main character, Ploi, prays that her third child will be a daughter, as she has already given birth to two sons.

In our recent analysis of data on thousands of older men and women in Thailand, we show how living with daughters is linked to higher levels of happiness among older parents.

Our findings suggest that older parents who live with at least one child, especially a daughter, are happier on average than parents living alone.

Beyond the evidence on the value of daughters for elderly care, governments could invest in institutional services for older people, regardless of gender. Otherwise, rapid population aging in Asian societies could only exacerbate the double burden of care that has hindered women’s development.

As our research also shows, investing in women from the start is a way to ensure the well-being of Asia’s older population.

Investing in the development of women through education

Another area for policy intervention is women’s access to education. Most countries have made progress in this area.

In Thailand, the percentage of women who completed upper secondary education increased from 0.7% to 35.11% between 1970 and 2019.

Compared to men, this share was only about half in 1970. Today the ratio is identical, implying that an equal number of boys and girls in Thailand attend higher education.

However, traditional gender attitudes remain embedded in Asian societies. Contemporary textbooks are full of instances where women are portrayed as the weaker sex. Women and girls are missing from textbook lessons with examples of professionals and non-traditional professions.

Paradoxically, as more boys and girls go to school, traditional gender norms are further reinforced. The overrepresentation of women in traditional roles is also a challenge, even for otherwise gender-equal countries such as Thailand and Malaysia.

In addition to investing in women’s development through better access to schools and jobs, Asia’s rapidly aging societies must also prioritize investments that eliminate hidden biases against women.

Prioritizing textbook reforms with the aim of overturning gender stereotypes would be a good starting point.

This article was written in collaboration with Pataporn Sukontamarn and Nopphawan Photphisutthiphong, from Chulalongkorn University, Thailand, and Yen Thi Hai Nguyen, from the Vienna Institute of Demography, Austrian Academy of Sciences, Austria.

The World Health Summit Regional Meeting 2024, organized by Monash University, will take place from April 22 to 24.