TODAY THERE ARE more than 25 million women in the world who are needlessly blind, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries. This situation is largely driven by the fact that women in the developing world tend to be either excluded from, or are last in line for, medical care.
Cultural, social and economic factors often act as a barrier for women when accessing medication, surgery, eye tests and glasses, leaving women more exposed to blindness. This is turn impacts on the education not only of women but young girls, who drop out of school so as to become care givers and ‘substitute’ mothers to their families where their own mothers have become blind.
Two of the main causes of avoidable blindness amongst women are cataract and trachoma. Surveys from African and Asian countries, where cataract is the biggest cause of blindness, reveal that women account for almost 75 per cent of cataract cases simply because they do not receive surgery at the same rate as men.
Poverty exacerbates poverty
Cataract is a clouding of the eye’s lens – the part of the eye responsible for focusing light. The symptoms tend to be a gradual blurring of vision, which if left untreated can result in a total loss of sight. Removing a cataract is a relatively straightforward operation and can be conducted for as little as €32.
Trachoma is a bacterial eye infection. When left untreated, it causes immense pain as the eyelids turn inwards, making the eyelashes scratch the eyeball. The statistics for trachoma, a disease that as well as being caused by poverty exacerbates poverty, are similar to cataract with women accounting for 85 per cent of the advanced and blinding cases in the developing world.
As women tend to spend more time caring for children and are therefore more exposed to poor hygiene and sanitation risks, the propensity of them developing trachoma is much higher than for men. Trachoma can prevent women from completing simple household tasks which has a huge impact on families. Yet a trachoma operation costing as a little as €9 can and does ultimately restore sight.
Medical care and education are inextricably linked
Forty-year-old Lasoi from Kenya repeatedly suffered from trachoma and it eventually led to complete blindness. Lasoi was finding it a challenge to care for her seven children, so they had to drop out of school to help her. She was also struggling to do her beadwork, an essential income since her family lost their cattle due to drought. It wasn’t until Lasoi was screened by a Sightsavers-supported team visiting her village that she learned her sight could be restored by a 20-minute operation, positively changing her future and that of her family.
Lasoi’s story is unfortunately a sad reality for many families in the developing world who are forced to take children out of school to care for their blind relatives. The issue of access to medical care and education are inextricably linked.
Women are often exposed to a double disenfranchisement: last in line to receive medical attention and first to drop out of education. This has the trickle-down effect of limiting human and social development and so the cycle of poverty is perpetuated.
Girls are last in line for even basic care
It’s unimaginable to many in the developed world that a person could be last in line for medical care and education simply because of gender but for many in the developing world this is the stark reality.
There are currently 75 million children excluded from primary education in the developing world and girls are far more likely to miss out than boys. In Sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are currently 18 million girls out of school primarily because families are more likely to take their daughters out of school than their sons to help with sick or frail relatives who may have become blind from diseases such as river blindness.
In response to such a dramatic gender imbalance, Sightsavers works in over 30 developing countries to prevent, treat and cure avoidable blindness and is supporting its partners in the development of programmes that work with local cultures to ensure that access to medical attention and education for all remain paramount.
There is no quick-fix solution for breaking the cycle of poverty in developing countries. But by ensuring that women receive equal access to medical treatment, particularly for treatable eye conditions such as cataract and trachoma, the invisible chain that operates to discriminate against women when it comes to medical treatment and education can once and for all be broken.
Michael Marren is CEO of Sightsavers Ireland. Sightsavers works in over 30 developing countries worldwide to eliminate avoidable blindness and to promote equal opportunity for people with disabilities.
If you would like to support the work that Sightsavers does to combat avoidable blindness, please text EYES to 50300 to donate €4 or donate online at www.sightsavers.ie.
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