Empowering women in unexpected ways
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With limited access to clean water in her small village in Kenya, Anne contracted blinding trachoma. She lost all vision in her right eye and some in her left. Through Operation Eyesight’s SAFE program (which stands for Surgery, Antibiotics, Face washing and hygiene education, and Environmental improvement), Anne received surgery to treat the trachoma. Her pain is gone, and her remaining vision in her left eye has been preserved, allowing her to continue to provide for her nine children.

Blindness is a gender issue. Blindness discriminates. Fifty-five per cent of the world’s blind are women and girls. More than 20 million women and girls are blind, and 120 million are visually impaired. Four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be.

And this injustice is magnified in developing countries. Women face additional barriers to accessing eye care that men don’t: lack of education, limited decision-making power, restricted access to financial resources and a lower perceived priority.

One reason for the disparity is that women live longer than men, so they are more likely to develop age-related, non-communicable eye diseases such as cataract, glaucoma and macular degeneration. But despite the fact that more women than men are affected by the condition, cataract surgery rates are lower for women.

And this is only part of the picture.

Women and girls are at greater risk of contracting trachoma, an infectious eye disease that leads to irreversible blindness. Seventy per cent of those affected by blinding trachoma are women. Very young children are at risk for trachoma, and three times as many girls as boys suffer from it.

Women and girls are at increased risk for infectious eye diseases because of their traditional roles. Women and girls carry the burden of taking care of their relatives who suffer from trachoma or other eye conditions. Not only does this increase their risk of contracting trachoma themselves, but it often limits their opportunities to go to school or find employment.

Women who are blind carry the double burden of discrimination because of their disability and their gender, which can lead to social exclusion. This impacts their ability to do day-to-day activities, increases their risk of injury, and leaves them more vulnerable to violence and depression.

To achieve the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the World Health Organization’s VISION 2020 goals, eye care programs must eliminate all forms of inequity in access to eye care for women and girls. Eye care programs must recognize that women and girls have different needs, preferences and constraints, and women and girls should be at the centre of eye health programming.

Organizations must work with local communities to understand the barriers women face, take affirmative action in training and human resource development to ensure there are more women in the health care system, and remove the barriers to access to services. In addition, programs should integrate eye health services into maternal and reproductive health facilities to give pregnant women access to eye health screening that is not provided routinely, and provide outreach to villages where eye disease remains largely undiagnosed and untreated.

 

Operation Eyesight works with local hospital and government partners to provide quality eye care services to everyone – regardless of gender, age, ability to pay or other personal circumstances – while working to address the many root causes of avoidable blindness and remove barriers to health care, specifically and deliberately targeting the barriers for women and girls.

I’m especially proud of our focus on community outreach and education. We train community health workers – women who live and work in our target communities – to conduct door-to-door eye screenings and educate families about eye health and general health topics such as prenatal care, nutrition and immunization. This approach allows us to reach women and girls who might otherwise go unreached, ensuring those with eye health issues are referred to a partner hospital or vision centre for treatment.

Community health workers also refer women and their families to primary health care facilities for pre/postnatal care, vitamin A supplementation, immunizations, etc. These are just a few examples of how we’re embedding SDG 5: Gender Equality into our everyday work.

 

Stats on blindness and women retrieved from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness, Seva Canada, this article in BMJ Open Ophthalmology and this article in Ophthalmic Epidemiology.

A variation of this article was previously published on CCIC’s website for Gender Equality Week.