Achieving Gender Equity in Eye Health
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Vision impairment is a gender issue. Women and girls are more likely to suffer from vision impairment than men or boys. This is due to many factors, such as their traditional roles in the household involving cleaning and caring for ill family members, and the fact that they are less likely to receive access to care and treatment when available. More than 20 million women and girls are blind, and more than 120 million are visually impaired. The numbers are staggering.

The theme of International Women’s Day 2020 is an equal world is an enabled world. We know that a gender equal world benefits everyone, not just women. We imagine a world where women and girls no longer needlessly suffer from vision impairment because they are not prioritized for treatment. We envision a world where women and girls have equal access to essential care and are empowered to take ownership over their eye health needs. In 2015, the United Nations set out 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as a blueprint for a better world. Access to quality health care for all is paramount to SDG #3 – Good Health and Well-Being. To achieve both the SDGs and the World Health Organization’s VISION 2020 goals, we must eliminate all forms of inequity in access to eye care for women and girls.

Eye screening being performed by a community health worker

In spirit of IWD 2020, we are sharing the successes and challenges eye health organizations have had in their gender equity programming. This gives us an idea of where we’re presently at with integrating gender strategies into global eye health, while also highlighting the gaps that still need to be addressed going forward.

Two of the biggest challenges to gender equity programming that we face in eye health are addressing cultural barriers, and getting the full buy-in and support from local partner organizations. The Fred Hollows Foundation addressed these challenges by partnering with the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in Cambodia to conduct gender equity and eye health training within communities. They also partnered with the Ministry of Health to further embed gender equity within health programs. SDG #17 – Partnerships for the Goals, advocates for inclusive partnerships between governments, the private sector and civil society. By partnering with local, regional and national levels of government, we can address gender barriers to eye health and ensure the long-term sustainability of our efforts.

To achieve gender equity in eye health, we need the full participation of women and girls and men and boys. Operation Eyesight promotes this by training community health workers who conduct door-to-door surveys in their communities. They identify all people in need of eye care services and refer them to vision centres to ensure that they receive appropriate treatment. They also counsel the patient’s family members to ensure nobody is left behind. A champion of Operation Eyesight is Jaya Raju. Jaya is a widow who lost her husband in a fatal accident and was disowned by her in-laws. She suffered from severe depression following the accident, which was compounded by her fear regarding how she could support her child and aging parents. While looking for work, Jaya learned of an opportunity to work as a community health worker for Operation Eyesight and decided to apply. Although Jaya had very little experience, her determination and commitment landed her the job. Now, Jaya travels for two hours a day visiting households, talking to people and listening to their problems and concerns. She is now the breadwinner of her family. Her parents call her “Shanni Jaya” (Smart Jaya). They say, “she has now found the purpose of her life.” Jaya is an inspiration to other women in her community. Her willingness to learn and step outside of her comfort zone has allowed her to realize her full potential and achieve her dream of helping people by eliminating avoidable blindness from her community. 

The International Agency for Prevention of Blindness (IAPB) Gender Equity Working Group brings together eye health organizations working to eliminate avoidable blindness and eliminate all forms of inequity for women and girls. Collectively, we are addressing SDG #1 – No Poverty, SDG #3 – Good Health & Well-Being, SDG #5 – Gender Equality, SDG # 6 – Clean Water & Sanitation, and SDG # 17 – Partnerships for the Goals.  

Thank you to Fred Hollows Foundation, Seva, Mission for Vision and Operation Eyesight for their contributions to this article.