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Sexual abuse of elderly people must be exposed, says UN expert

As the world prepares to commemorate World Elder Abuse Awareness Day this Saturday (15 June), Rosa Kornfeld-Matte, a United Nations (UN) independent human rights expert, mandated with safeguarding the rights of elderly people, stressing that they are often victims of sexual abuse and rape, although it remains rarely detected or reported – even when there are clear warning signs.

Ms Kornfeld-Matte was appointed by the Human Rights Council as the first Independent Expert on the enjoyment of all human rights by older persons in May 2014.

“The sexual abuse and rape of older persons is a subject rarely discussed, but nevertheless is a reality,” said Ms Kornfeld-Matte in a media statement issued on Thursday (13 June), urging the world at large to “be more attentive and report suspected cases of abuse of older people”.

“Sexual abuse and rape of older persons is still a taboo” and rather “invisible”, she noted, pointing out that “with the ageing of our societies, this problem is expected to grow dramatically”; and that “without enough data, statistics, and studies, we will not have even an estimate of the dimensions involved.”

One of the challenges of sexual abuse is the perpetuation of the myth that strangers are mainly responsible for the act. “Sadly, most abusers are family members, relatives or other confidants typically in caring positions,” she emphasized.

The human rights expert hinted that “negative stereotypes, such as that older persons aren’t sexual beings, their greater dependency on others, potential divided loyalty to staff members or residents, are unique barriers to reporting, detecting and preventing sexual assault in nursing homes”.

However, despite severe health consequences, efforts to address and put a stop to abuse remain inadequate. For instance, Ms Kornfeld-Matte explained that “forensic and other criminal evidence can be lost by mistaken compassion or shame of others who desire to make the older person comfortable instead of calling the police”.

To rectify this, she called on everyone to always be vigilant towards the behavior of an elderly person, and do not stand idle when faced with potential case of abuse.

“Let me reiterate that awareness and attentiveness is critical. Not only relatives and confidants but also staff in hospitals and care facilities must be aware of the existence of sexual assault and that it is their duty as care providers to report alleged or suspected sexual assault in a timely manner,” she highlighted.

At the same time, she proposed for more education, training, as well as data and research to thoroughly address the knowledge gaps around incidence, reporting, investigations, in order to provide better assistance to victims and effective response to this issue.