An elderly man sleeps on the streets in Dhaka. In Asia and the Pacific, the number of older persons will double in 15 years, and will triple by 2050, when one in four will be older than 60 years – IRIN Photo

DHAKA: As their numbers grow and their family support weakens, elderly people in Bangladesh are not getting the social protection they need, say campaigners and researchers, reports IRIN, the UN information unit.

Government payments for the elderly are inadequate, critics say, and only one in four elderly are getting them, according to a study by HelpAge International. Meanwhile, adult children and younger relatives, who traditionally served as a safety net for older generations, are being pulled away, often for work.

The sight of an elderly person begging on the street was unusual five years ago, but it is increasingly common, said Shashwatee Biplob, a social protection and policy manager with HelpAge International in Bangladesh.

“More and more elderly Bangladeshis are being left alone,” she said.

Industrial development, a lack of livelihood options, and a cultural shift towards a nuclear family structure are all contributing to the isolation of the elderly. Even climate change is at play. As river erosion claims homes and soil becomes less fertile, people move away in search of economic opportunities, Biplob explained.

Zamirul Miah, 65, moved to the city a couple of years ago after losing his home to river erosion, while his son moved to the Middle East for work.

“Begging is my only profession now,” said Zamirul Miah, 65, who sleeps on a city footpath.

Safety nets The population aged 60 and above in Bangladesh is projected to grow 8 percent by 2020, 12 percent by 2035 and 17 percent by 2050, according to a study by Mustafiz Rahman of Innovators, a local research organisation.

The bulk of elderly people are women living in rural areas, Rahman said. The average age at marriage is higher for men than women in Bangladesh, and women typically live longer.

“They don’t receive any sort of help from government and even from NGOs,” Rahman said of this group.

The Ministry of Social Welfare runs a programme to disburse US$3.97 per month to elderly women 62 and older and to men 65 and above. More than 2.4 million people received the Old Age Allowance this year, costing the government more than $11 billion, said Ranjit Kumar Biswas, secretary in charge of the Ministry of Social Welfare.

The ministry is also working to establish six homes for the elderly in six divisions across the country, Biswas said.

Critics of the government initiatives say that with prices rising the allowance is insufficient, and it is also poorly managed.

Rahman said the increasing costs of food and other essentials have forced the poor to cut back on the quantity and quality of their food. The government allowance covers less than six days worth of meals, said Rahman, who estimated that 71 US cents would pay for three daily meals in Bangladesh.

Excluded

According to one study from HelpAge International, about 76 percent of elderly Bangladeshis are being excluded from government support and social protection, in the form of the Old Age Allowance and a pension payment, Biplob said.

The selection process for the allowance is flawed, and there is nepotism, inefficiency, and a lack of accountability that plague the system, Rahman said.

“The government needs to be more transparent in disbursing payments to real old people,” Rahman said.

Government officials said they would look into allegations about mismanagement.

NGOs in Bangladesh are not doing enough to support the elderly in regard to their livelihood options, either, NGO sources said.

While microcredit is perceived to be an effective way to help the rural poor, according to HelpAge International, older people are often excluded from getting loans or support from microfinance institutions.

Zahura Begum, a 70-year-old domestic worker, said she has never received an old age allowance. She started working for a family in Dhaka 10 years ago, after her husband left her for another woman.

“None of my three daughters or my son has a place for me in their houses,” said an emotional Zahura, who hails from the Dinajpur District. “I don’t know about old-age allowance. Besides, it has little use to me, since I have no place to go.”

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