Three activists on why they refuse to be silent in older age

Three women stand at a protest, holding flags and signs, and they are shouting.

Older people around the world are actively campaigning to defend our human rights, whether they’re fighting climate change, standing up for LGBTQIA+ rights, or speaking out against enforced disappearances. They are refusing to back down or be silent.

We asked three older activists to reflect on their experiences, the changes they are campaigning for, and how being an older person gives them unique perspective and motivation.

Cecile de Ryckel stands with her arms in front of her, smiling.

Cecile de Ryckel, 78, Belgium

Cecile is a lifelong activist working on anti-racism and climate change.

Why did you become an activist?

After a homelessness crisis amongst migrants in Belgium in 2015, my husband and I hosted two people from Ethiopia who the authorities had left to sleep in a city park. They told us that in Ethiopia they were small-scale farmers and grew food for their families. However, it was raining less frequently, and growing food was becoming more difficult. That was when I realized that climate change was one of the most important issues in the world today, and that it would have far-reaching consequences.

Soon after that I participated in a citizens assembly discussing how best to address climate change and reduce carbon emissions. We learned how to mobilize people and change behaviours. I joined an advocacy collective, Grandparents for the Climate, and started working actively on the issue.

What change are you campaigning for?

We quickly realized that banks and other financial institutions, through their investments, were responsible for a large share of our carbon footprint and often directly funded projects that were “carbon bombs”. We asked ourselves how, as older people, we could encourage banks to divest from fossil fuels and started spreading the word about how we can all make informed choices that support green financial investments.

I have been amazed at what I have learned during my journey as an activist. Banks and their investments have far-reaching impacts on the climate crisis. We now work closely with youth organizations to strengthen our impact and build our influence.

A hand holds a sign that says, "Climate Justice Now!"

Why does this issue matter for you as an older person?

We have a responsibility to future generations to address this challenge today. It already has wide-ranging impacts on people of all ages. I remember when I was a child that we would joke that an older person was someone who “wouldn’t make it through the winter”, but today due to rising temperatures we sadly have to ask whether some older people can “make it through the summer”.

I recently saw how a group of older women won a landmark court case that the Swiss government’s weak climate change policy had violated their rights. This will help advance the cause greatly, for people of all ages.

Has being an older person impacted your activism?

I feel that my years of experience help me see the best path forward to achieving the impact we want. As older people, we can draw attention to these issues – younger people and the media are often interested in what we have to say on the issue. I’m older now, but I still feel very active, creative and motivated – we all sometimes get tired, but there is no question that we must take action now.

Amina Musa, stands and looks at the camera

Amina Musa, 72, Nigeria

Amina is an activist on behalf of victims of the armed conflict in north-east Nigeria and their families, including those who have been unlawfully killed or detained.

Why did you become an activist?

I became an activist nine years ago when Boko Haram forced us to leave our homes, and we found ourselves living in camps controlled by the Nigerian government. The military made baseless accusations that our sons were associated with Boko Haram. Our sons were blindfolded and arrested and held in dehumanizing conditions. I had no choice but to start campaigning for their release. As mothers, we came together and started a movement to seek justice.

What change are you campaigning for?

We are demanding that all those detained unlawfully be released immediately and that the government investigate the gross violations we have experienced. Some of our sons have been in detention for more than 10 years. We have had enough, we want justice.

How has being an older person impacted your activism?

As older people, we are so often abandoned and ignored by our governments because of our age. We are sidelined from consultations or engagements about our community, we are dismissed and told that we are too old. But I will not relent because of my age. Sometimes as an older person I can have more of an impact because, for some in society, my words carry more weight. In general, I would say my age is a positive thing when it comes to my activism.

I tell other older people that they should continue with their activism and bear with the challenges, and that our activism can also inspire younger people. I know it is not easy, but these causes are important. Age should not and will not deter us from making our society free from injustice.

Juan Jacobo Hernández sits and looks off to the side.

Juan Jacobo Hernández, 82, Mexico

Juan is an activist on social issues and LGBTQIA+ liberation.

Why did you become an activist?

In the 1960s, I was part of Mexican student movements. Then Stonewall happened: I had a boyfriend at the time who lived in New York, and he told me that I had to come and see it for myself. I witnessed the first LGBTQ+ rebellion: the first time gay men, trans people, lesbians were standing up and confronting the police.

Coming back to Mexico, we started the Frente de Liberación Homosexual (Gay Liberation Front). I had learned a lot about how to make protests visible and how to make our voices heard. Finally, there was a space where we could be active, where we could do something.

What change are you campaigning for?

When I started my activism, we didn’t use the term “human rights” – but that’s what it has always been about. We held large demonstrations against political repression, for the abolition of the death penalty, and to fight restrictions on social protest. Persecution by the government was very real and close to us at the time – gay men and trans women were persecuted, raided by the police, extorted and beaten up.

Whenever we were out in the street, we felt that something bad could happen. We were struggling for our lives, for our security, for our right to be in the street without being beaten up, robbed or killed.

Crowd at a Pride parade, someone holds a rainbow flag.

Why does this issue matter for you as an older person?

Older gay men in Mexico sometimes struggle to come together or to have groups and spaces they can engage with. This can be for a number of reasons, including for some, having not come out to their family members.

My whole life, I have never stopped being an activist. The AIDS epidemic collapsed the first phase of gay liberation. So many activists died and [as I grew older], I recognised the need to transmit my experience, knowledge and values [to the younger generation]. Since 1981 I’ve been part of Collective Sol, where we work to build and strengthen the capacity of small, grassroots organizations that are working on the most pressing LGBTQ+ issues they see today.

We all have human rights, but we are often not aware of them. In our community, we often don’t have a full understanding of what citizenship means and the rights we hold. My whole life as an activist I have learned that by mobilizing people to demand their rights, step by step, little by little, we can see real change.

Has being an older person impacted your activism?

My life as an activist means I can look back and say I have witnessed three great moments in LGBTQ+ liberation. The first was when we formed political organizations, coming out of the shadows and breaking the silence. The second was the HIV/AIDS epidemic, the way it created a connection between LGBTQ+ liberation and people living with HIV, irrespective of whether they were LGBTQ+. This connection was powerful and drove the movement forward.

And in just the last few weeks, we saw what I consider the third great moment – the passing of national legislation to ban conversion therapy. This was the result of a seven-year campaign. It will have a great impact on social perceptions of sexuality and gender identity.

The trans movement is so powerful and visible right now, campaigning on issues that are very close to their day-to-day lives as they face such exclusion. I really admire all the organizations taking forward the fight. As an older activist, I feel privileged to see how these younger generations are responding to new challenges – it’s something we never dreamed of in our movement when we were young.

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