Gender and eye health

Orbis Africa

Lene Øverland, CEO, Orbis Africa (and 10GA programme partner) writes on the role of gender in eye health, to mark ‘National Women’s Day’ in South Africa.

Lene Øverland, CEO Orbis Africa | Photo credit: Clare Louise Thomas

Lene Øverland, CEO Orbis Africa | Photo credit: Clare Louise Thomas

It is a known fact that the majority of the 32.4 million people who are blind and the 190.6 million who are visually impaired live in low and middle-income countries. The hard-hitting and sad reality is that the majority are avoidably blind.

One of the greatest challenges to delivering quality eye health services in Sub-Saharan Africa is the lack of appropriately trained human resources equipped to manage the complex health needs of African communities. New and innovative strategies to address these human resource shortages are more urgent than ever if we are to deal with the estimated 4.8 million people who are blind and the further 16.6 million who have severe to moderate visual impairment across Africa. It is essential that we dismantle barriers and enable universal access to eye health services.

The lack of access to services, due to a diversity of socio-economic barriers including gender, is another significant challenge that Orbis faces. In Africa, two-thirds of blind and visually impaired people are women and the problem of gender-based blindness is exacerbated by a lack of access to appropriate healthcare. Men are 1.7 times more likely to receive cataract surgery than women.  If women in Africa received surgery at the same frequency as men, cataract blindness could be reduced by about 12%. In countries such as South Africa, women bear the overwhelming burden of household responsibilities and child rearing, despite debilitating sight loss.

Research in the KwaZulu-Natal province in South Africa identified that while men were often able to seek financial and personal support from wives or daughters, women carried the double-burden of housework and financially supporting their families.

Both men and women face 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.

Fortunately, strategies to address this disparity have demonstrated success in reducing blindness in women. These include:

  • Addressing constraints that limit women’s access to transportation, financial resources and social support has reduced cataract, the primary cause of blindness.
  • Utilising existing social and traditional structures to access families to provide counselling and train women to reach other female community members.
  • Education is key for boy and girl children with congenital eye disease, which is particularly dangerous because left untreated, may cause permanent blindness.

Blindness impedes people’s ability to gain an education, it often prevents people from finding employment or a life partner and it can lead to a lonely life in poverty. As CEO of Orbis Africa I have the pleasure of leading a team of professional staff and leaders who all have one mission at heart – to save sight and to make children see their mother’s smile, husband’s to see their wives after years in blindness and grandmothers to see their grandchildren after sight saving surgery.