It is well-known that older women are amongst the poorest segments of society. Women’s poverty in old age reflects their disadvantaged social and economic status throughout their lives. Pensions generally depend on lifetime contributions, favouring those who have been able to work continuously at reasonable levels of pay throughout their working lives. This is a pattern with which women are unlikely to conform: continued responsibility for child care leads instead to fragmented working histories, periods of part-time working and generally low levels of pay. For the vast majority of women who work in the informal sector, in precarious jobs or unpaid in the home, old age carries little comfort.
The SDG 2030 agenda is brimful of promises for the achievement of gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls. The record of their predecessor MDGs, however, raises doubts about the extent of the political commitment to fulfil these promises. This raises the question of the role of human rights. Unlike development goals, which are political aspirations, human rights are legally binding commitments. Can human rights, and particularly the right to equality, be harnessed to hold the world to account for its SDG promises? And what would this mean for older women? This requires more attention to be paid to the meaning of the right to equality. Simply treating everyone the same would make little impact on the poverty which the SDGs aim to address, particularly in a situation of intersectional inequality faced by poor older women. Instead, this paper argues for a substantive conception of the right to equality, which is capable of addressing the multi-facetted nature of the poverty facing older women. It interrogates the potential for both human rights and the SDGs, working together, to achieve substantive equality for older women.