Hesperian Health Guides

Hesperian Health Guides

Working for Change

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HealthWiki > Where Women Have No Doctor > Chapter 8: Growing Older > Working for Change


It is traditional in most places for families to live together and for young people to care for their elders. But now many women and men work away from their communities, often traveling far from their homes to earn money to support their families. Older people are now often left to care for themselves.

Older women are more likely than men to live alone. Women usually live longer than men and often marry older men. In many places women whose partners have died are considered less important than married women. When an older woman lives in a community that no longer values elders, she— as well as her family—may feel that her health problems are not worthy of treatment. Or services to treat her health problems may not exist.

When an older woman is also very poor, the problems she faces are much worse. She may not have the money to pay for health care and medicines, to buy healthy foods, or to pay for a healthy place to live.

two women standing near a table with eggs for sale in a busy farmyard

Income earning projects. One way that older women can improve their situation is by finding ways to earn money to support themselves and even help their families, such as:

  • raising animals, like chickens, goats, or cows, and then selling the eggs, milk, cheese, or meat.
  • making bread or other food to sell.
  • making traditional crafts or sewing things to sell.
Six widows living in a small community in El Salvador decided they wanted to earn some money by raising chickens to sell for meat. None of them had ever raised chickens before, but they asked a group that supports cooperatives to help show them how.


After a local community association loaned them money, the group started to work. At night the women took turns sleeping in the chicken coop to keep animals and people from stealing the chickens. At dawn the women rose to kill and clean chickens. Every day the women walked for miles to other communities to sell the chickens, carrying them in baskets on their heads.

Men from their community—and even a specialist who worked with an agency—all told them their project would not be successful. But the women earned enough money to cover their costs, buy new chickens, and pay themselves each about $45 a month. Although it was not much money, it was more than any of them had ever earned before. And they gained respect in their community because they had a successful business. As one of them said, “We never imagined that we could run our own business. Now look at us. We are the bosses!"

an older woman talking to three younger people about a plant growing in the ground

Older women have much wisdom and experience. Working together can make them very powerful.

Community services for older women. By working together, older women can encourage their communities to:

  • create less costly housing for older women, or form groups that live together to cut down on living expenses.
  • include older women in nutrition programs.
  • train health workers in the special health needs of older women.

Older women can teach others. Older women are the main keepers of traditional healing practices, and only they can pass on this knowledge to the next generation. To preserve these practices and remind others that older women have important skills, women can teach these practices to their children and grandchildren. Older women can also help health workers learn traditional healing practices, so that health workers can use the best methods of both traditional and modern medicine.

Changing government policies and laws. Many governments provide monthly income (pensions), housing, and health care for older people. If your government does not, try to work together with other women to change these laws. This kind of change takes time. But even if a woman does not see the changes herself, she will know she has worked toward a better life for her daughters and grand-daughters.


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