HPC Fellow: Sara Owens, HelpAge USA

Sara Owens is a Hilton Prize Coalition Fellow with HelpAge USA in Washington, D.C. HelpAge International is a global network of organizations promoting the right of all older people to lead dignified, healthy and secure lives. As the programs and marketing fellow, Sara assists in building partnerships with corporations and foundations, and supports the staff on special projects such as HelpAge’s Gender-Based Violence study and the ADCAP program.

The Importance of Including Older Women in Humanitarian Response
By Sara Owens

When I began to envision my career, I knew I wanted to work in the humanitarian sector, and I could clearly feel a passion to promote gender equality and rights for women in my own community and around the world. What I didn’t know until I started my fellowship at HelpAge, is just how powerful and necessary gender equality is within humanitarian programming.

HelpAge focuses on improving the lives of older people and their families so they can lead dignified, healthy, and secure lives. HelpAge works to ensure older people have access to better health services, pensions, income generating activities, and more appropriate emergency responses. One of the great things about HelpAge is that the staff here have challenged me to think outside the box when it comes to age and gender inclusive humanitarian response programs.

Whether it’s accessing basic healthcare or remaining safe in situations of displacement and emergencies, I have learned a great deal about the challenges older women face. A big problem in delivering humanitarian aid to older women is that there is almost no data gathered on this demographic. People above the age of 50 are routinely excluded from policy, research, and programming regarding gender-based violence in humanitarian settings. This lack of data often leads to issues in accessing aid, or even women’s exclusion from these aid programs. Simply put, humanitarian actors find it difficult to justify resource allocation for a group that they know nothing about.

According to a study done by HelpAge, gender-based violence (GBV) and intimate partner violence are exacerbated in humanitarian emergencies [1], so in addition to problems with accessing aid in emergencies women and older women experience increased levels of violence in situations of displacement. Following these major emergencies and epidemics, older women are also relied upon to become caretakers.

family members sitting on bench

Theresa (55), four of her grandchildren, and Theresa’s grandmother (95).

As part of my fellowship, I routinely drafted emails to our donors. One email detailed how an older woman in Western Africa was affected by the Ebola epidemic. Although she didn’t contract Ebola herself, both her daughter and son-in-law died as a result, leaving her to raise six grandchildren. Her story is only one of many happening all over the world. In fact, HelpAge estimates that half of the children orphaned by HIV/AIDS are being brought up by a grandparent, and usually the grandmother.

The WHO states that older women in these situations experience increased levels of violence and abuse from partners who are financially burdened by having to raise their grandchildren. [2] Due to these barriers, women, and specifically older women, face a difficult set of challenges when humanitarian emergencies arise.

Working with HelpAge has opened my eyes to the need to support underserved populations. HelpAge has also taught me that humanitarian responses should not be a one-size-fits-all approach because there are diverse needs in any population. Through delivering age-appropriate food, hygiene kits, healthcare, psycho-social support and other resources, HelpAge is the only international NGO dedicated to supporting older women and men in humanitarian settings.

In addition to learning about older women and humanitarian programming, I have also learned a great deal about the ins and outs of grant-making, fundraising, research, and communications strategies. A wonderful benefit of working with the smaller US office of this global organization is being able to observe and support the daily aspects of an NGO’s operations. Throughout the past few months working with HelpAge, I have grown on both a professional and personal level.


[1] Age is No Protection: Prevalence of gender-based violence among men and women over 49 years of age in five situations of protracted displacement. AAAS, 2017.
[2] Women, Ageing and Health: A Framework for Action. World Health Organization, 2007

(Photos courtesy of HelpAge)

About The Hilton Prize Coalition
The Hilton Prize Coalition is an independent alliance of the 22 winners of the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, working together to achieve collective impact. Through three signature programs—the Fellows Program, the Collaborative Models Program and the Storytelling Program—the Coalition leverages the resources, talents and expertise of each of its members to innovate and establish best practices that can be shared with the global NGO and donor communities. Working in more than 170 countries, the Coalition is governed by a board comprised of the leaders of the Prize-winning organizations led by an Executive Committee and a Secretariat, Global Impact.

To learn more about the Hilton Prize Coalition, visit prizecoalition.charity.org, or contact prizecoalition@charity.org. Follow the Hilton Prize Coalition on Twitter and LinkedIn, and “Like” us on Facebook.

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