Eye health through the gender lens

An African lady at an eye screening

Helen White, Director of Communications & Fundraising, Orbis Africa (and 10GA programme partner) writes on the role gender plays when it comes to eye health in Africa.

It is true that blindness can stalk anyone regardless of race or gender or age.

That’s if you view the eyes simply as an organ of the body devoid of any context in the real world and if you ignore all statistics.

The moment you see sight in context, all that changes.

Firstly, people in poorer communities are far more likely to become needlessly impaired, and when one considers that 80% of blindness could have been stopped if it was treated in time, this is a tragedy.

Then add into the mix that hottest topic of all: the gender-divide.

Like with many things, being a girl child or a woman immediately puts you in the ‘back row’ when it comes to who can and who can’t access services.

Did you know that on our continent, two thirds of blind and visually impaired people are women?

That’s because treatment and prevention come down to accessing services, and that is harder for women.

When it comes to cataract, there is another highly worrying statistic to consider: men are 1.7 times more likely to receive cataract surgery than women.

If that were to change, and women in Africa received surgery at the same rate as men, cataract blindness would be reduced by a whopping 12%.

A closer look at social factors reveals the unfair load placed on women who lose their sight: In countries such as South Africa, women bear the overwhelming burden of household responsibilities and child rearing, even when they have experienced debilitating sight loss.

Research in the KwaZulu-Natal province found that men were often able to seek financial and personal support from wives or daughters when they suffered visual loss or impairment.

Women, on the other hand, carried the burden of cleaning, cooking, and child rearing as well as contributing financially to the household – even when blind!.

Both men and women are faced with barriers preventing them from accessing the services they need, but women often experience debilitating challenges when sight loss is coupled with gendered economic, social and cultural expectations.

However, this bleak picture is of no use to those of us who can make a difference if we choose to turn our own ‘blind eye’ to the situation.

Put simply, a little innovation – through government, communities, non-profits and households – goes a long way.

Studies have shown that when women’s access to transport, money and social support improves, cataract (the primary cause of blindness) is reduced.

When existing social and traditional structures are used to train women to reach other female community members, an incredibly strong network of support is the result.

When girl children are sent off to school at the same rate as boy children, there is more chance that a problem with their sight will be picked up.

The earlier the detection the better: children with congenital eye disease need to be treated as quickly as possible to prevent permanent blindness.

A girl child who goes blind permanently becomes a woman carrying the same burdens as the ones described above.

Just remember: Blindness impedes education, can prevent people from finding employment or a life partner, and can lead to a lonely life in poverty.

Ask yourself if there is anything you can do about this – in your personal, professional or financial capacity.

We owe it to our country – because that is also our community.