Addressing Gender Inequality in Eye Health

With International Women’s Day coming up on March 8, we would like to spotlight the issue of women’s access to eye care services, as vision impairment is a gender issue.

Let’s start with a few important statistics:

55% of people with vision loss are women

According to the 2020 IAPB (International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness) Vision Atlas, 609 million women and girls worldwide live with vision loss (55%), compared to 497 million men and boys (45%).

Overall, women are:

  • 8% more likely to be blind.
  • 15% more likely to have moderate to severe vision impairment.
  • 12% more likely to have mild vision loss than men.
  • 11% more likely to have near vision impairment. 

What are the reasons behind the figures?

One reason is that women typically have longer life expectancies than men, and many eye conditions such as cataract, glaucoma and age-related macular degeneration are associated with increasing age. Women can also be at greater risk for certain eye conditions, like cataract and trachoma, particularly in low- and middle-income countries. And, in many countries, including the countries in Francophone Africa where OPC works, women have less access to eye health services – and therefore to care and treatment – to due various socio-economic and cultural factors.

This has far-reaching implications not just for the women affected, but also for their families, caregivers and globally for progress towards many of the Sustainable Development Goals.

What are barriers to eye health services?

There are many barriers that prevent both women and men from accessing eye health services, but these obstacles are often more difficult for women to overcome. These include:

  • Costs. Women often have less access to financial resources to pay for eye care or transportation to reach eye health services. 
  • Inability to travel. Women often have fewer options for travel than men, and poor families cannot provide the assistance that some women may require, especially older women. 
  • Lack of access to information and resources. Women’s rates of literacy can be lower than for men, especially among the elderly. As a result, women can be less likely to know about the possibility of treatment for an eye disease or where to go to receive it.

Why invest in women’s eye health care?

Women play a key role in social and economic development, so when women and girls have access to eye health services and sight saving surgeries, their entire community benefits. Good vision means that a woman’s overall health and wellbeing improves; good vision means that a girl can achieve her full potential in school and lessens the risk that she drops out. Good vision increases productivity and income, providing women with greater economic opportunities for themselves, their families and their communities. 

Evidence-based, cost-effective solutions to vision loss already exist, so investing in eye health care has the potential to change millions of lives.

How OPC increases women’s access to eye care services 

OPC’s eye care service programs are built to reach some of the most neglected and hardest-to-reach populations through targeted outreach and inclusive eye health screening camps, bringing quality eye care to women in remote, rural areas.

Organizing eye health screening camps begins at the district hospital, where a circuit of a given number of villages is defined based on the number of patients identified by trained eye health community workers. In the different villages, the community health workers inform all the women to gather in the center of the village on a specific day and time for an eye health screening. The women, generally accompanied by their children, are examined by eye health professionals, and referred for additional treatments if necessary. In all cases, the women receive follow ups from the eye health workers. 

This type of eye health service outreach is especially effective for cataract campaigns. Traveling to rural villages, the eye health professionals are able to spot and treat cataract, the leading cause of blindness in the world. At the same time, the patients, especially women, benefit from quality standard eye care services that were not easily accessible to them before. OPC uses the same method is used to organize trachoma screening and surgery camps, which are an effective way to deliver eye care treatments to neglected communities in an inclusive manner, bringing sight-saving treatments to women and to people with disabilities. 

In this way, OPC addresses the critical barriers to eye health services for women: costs, inability to travel and lack of access to information and resources. All OPC’s eye health activities are carried out in partnership with local partner eye care hospitals, Ministries of Health at the national and district levels, and in collaboration with community-based organizations and local development groups and disabled persons’ organizations (DPOs). The support and full buy-in from local partners is essential for the sustainability of OPC’s eye health programs and to ensure that quality eye care services are accessible to all.

The latest data from IAPB shows encouraging improvements in this situation. The worldwide percentage of blind people who are women has been decreasing, from 66% in 2001 to 55% today. This figure is still too high, but it is encouraging to see real progress being made on this critical issue. 

We still have much work to do. In honor of International Women’s Day and the women in your lives, consider making a donation to OPC to support comprehensive eye care for all, giving more women and girls access to quality eyecare and sight-saving surgeries.

Or help OPC raise awareness on this important topic by sharing this blog!