Mother’s Day is a chance for us to celebrate moms and the incredible women in our lives. For me, it’s also a chance to shine a light on the bravery and strength of mothers and the impact they have in their families and on entire communities.
When our team first met Esther, cataracts in both of her eyes had robbed this 79-year-old matriarch of her sight. For a year, she became completely dependent on her daughter-in-law for day-to-day care and was unable to play with her several grandchildren.
“I was worried because I thought my blindness was irreversible and that I was going to be a bother to my children forever,” recalls Esther, who lives in the remote village of Kapnegtuny in Nandi County, North Rift, Kenya.
“I felt very desperate.”
Esther’s cataracts also prevented her from gardening and caring for her cows. She says she missed cooking at home and playing music at traditional celebrations in her village.
I’m pleased to tell you that this grandmother’s story had a happy ending – she was able to receive cataract surgery at Operation Eyesight’s partner hospital, Meteitei Sub-County Hospital, free of charge.
“I am very happy. I can now see again and can see my dear grandchildren again,” she explains. “Now, I can move around without help and do things on my own. I hope to go back to my house soon and even cook for my husband.”
Barriers to gender equity in Africa
As a mother of two girls, I found myself particularly touched by Esther’s story when I met her.
Although Esther’s story had a happy ending thanks to the generosity of our donors and support of our partners, for many women – especially mothers – blindness and lack of access to eye care is often tied to poverty, economic exclusion and misinformation. This has been the experience of many of the women our teams meet in the field.
These compounding factors often result in women and girls having reduced access to education, healthcare and participation in public life.
Esther told our team that she was extremely anxious about receiving surgery and this was a barrier to her seeking care sooner. She made the courageous decision to undergo surgery thanks to the encouragement of a neighbour who had also received surgery from an Operation Eyesight partner hospital.
“Though I feared surgery, I had to face it to regain my sight,” she told us.
Why are so many women blind?
We know that women and girls are disproportionately impacted by vision loss and blindness. Fifty-five per cent of those suffering from vision loss worldwide are women and girls, and those living in mid- and low-income countries are often more vulnerable to eye conditions and vision problems.
Why? For starters, limited financial resources to travel and receive care often prevents many women from seeking help in the first place. To make matters worse, the prospect of travelling long distances through difficult and remote terrain, often across areas known for wild animals and bandits, frequently prevents women and girls from seeking the health services they need.
Our teams working in communities across Kenya have also seen first-hand how lower literacy rates among women leads to misinformation about eye conditions such as cataracts and trachoma. This misinformation leads to fear among patients, and this unfortunately results in women frequently refusing to seek care, as was the case for Esther.
Here in Kenya, the painful bacterial infection trachoma leads to irreversible blindness if left without antibiotic treatment. This disease spreads through flies and close contact with hands and clothing. Because of their traditional gender roles caring for children in the home, women are more likely to contract this potentially devastating infection, compared to their male counterparts. For every man infected with trachoma, there are three women who are blind from or infected with this painful condition.
Removing barriers to care
I’m proud of the work we do at Operation Eyesight because I see with my own eyes the difference our work makes in the lives of moms like Esther. So much of the work we are doing in communities is focused on addressing the root causes of blindness, including equity for women and girls.
Last year, we trained more than a thousand community health volunteers who will provide door-to-door eye health screening and health education within their own communities. More than 80 per cent of these volunteers are women. It’s this focus on women and girls that allows us to impact the lives of women like Esther.
I believe that together, this is just one way that we are dismantling the barriers that prevent many women and girls from accessing health services, including eye health care as well as maternal and child health information and resources.
By recruiting and training female health workers and volunteers within a community, we are creating a culture that empowers women and girls in ways that go far beyond vision loss and blindness.
For Esther’s family, who felt the strain of providing constant care to her, the impact of this work has been palpable.
“Restoring the sight of our grandmother has helped us very much,” says one of her grandchildren. “We are now free and can go for our daily activities with no worry of who is going to assist her.”
This is why our work matters. This is why we celebrate Mother’s Day.
Alice Mwangi is Operation Eyesight’s Country Director for Kenya, where she has played a critical role in the transformative work happening in communities across the country. In addition to raising her two daughters, Alice provides overall strategic direction and leadership for our programs in Kenya. To drive forward our mission to prevent blindness and restore sight, Alice develops valuable partnerships with hospitals, the Ministries of Health and Education and other nonprofit organizations.