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The moment things became invisible for me; I became invisible to society

Published: 25.09.2023
Jennifer Gersbeck Executive Director - Global Advocacy
The Fred Hollows Foundation

Tunisian woman Basma Essoussi was one of the 170 women across the globe sharing their powerful experiences of vision loss this year with The Fred Hollows Foundation and UN Women.

Together, the women representing every continent except Antarctica, wove a story of profound, multifaceted loss.

Unable to participate in the workforce or make a living for themselves and their families; loss of independence; not able to see the faces of loved ones; children struggling to learn and navigate through life. This is the reality for at least one billion people today – and 55 per cent are women and girls.

This is unnecessary and unacceptable.

A staggering 609 million women and girls worldwide are blind or living with sight loss.

Even worse, four out of five don’t need to be. Ninety per cent of vision loss is preventable or treatable.

Gender inequality is both a cause and consequence of blindness and sight loss. Women and girls do not have equal access to health services, including eye health, resulting in unnecessary sight loss. In turn, blindness becomes a barrier to women and girls leading safe, fulfilling lives, as clearly stated by Basma.

Sight loss can worsen existing gender-based inequities, such as reducing women’s participation in financial decision making, their ability to attend school, or risk from violence and sexual assault.

For example, where girls are blind or significantly vision impaired, they are often denied education; moreover, girls are generally charged with caring for adults with sight loss, taking them out of school.

Without education, women and girls are less able to work and earn an income, more likely to suffer ill-health, and less likely to educate their own children, creating a poverty trap for entire families.

When it comes to employment, women are particularly impacted because of cultural or other barriers that limit their participation in formal or secure employment.

Older women, due to a lifetime of cumulative discrimination, inequalities and often caring for others, confront economic insecurity, making access to care or an adequate standard of living virtually impossible.

Better access to health services for all women and girls is necessary, but it is not enough. We must challenge and remove the barriers that stop women from occupying seats at the decision-making table.

World Health Organization data shows that women comprise 70 per cent of the global healthcare workforce, they occupy less than 25 per cent of senior roles. At the same time, the world needs an estimated 18 million more health workers – most in developing countries – to cover rising health needs.

Health systems are stronger and health outcomes are proven to be better for women and children when the women who deliver services have an equal say, and when experienced, dedicated women are staying in the workforce and able to demonstrate their leadership.

These impacts on women and girls – and professional women in the health workforce – drove international eye health organisation The Fred Hollows Foundation to act, joining with UN Women to accelerate progress towards gender equity in health and ensure no woman is left behind.

Together, we outline a clear path forward:

  • We must elevate the voices of women with lived experience of blindness, sight loss and vision-related disability to better inform and design eye health plans, policies, programs and research to meet their needs across the life-course, from young girls to older women.
  • Women must be prioritised for inclusion in eye health leadership positions so their representation can have a greater impact on targeted policies and programs.
  • Sufficient resources need to be allocated to support gender-responsive eye health programs.

And we need rights-based policies that promote gender equality and address the real barriers faced by women and girls.

Tackling eye health is also good fiscal policy. New research from The Fred Hollows Foundation and Victoria University presents a compelling example of return on investment. On average, cataract treatment returns more than $US20 for every dollar spent.

Access to good eye health is a basic human right. It is critical that people have equitable access to better health outcomes and can contribute fully to their communities. It’s time to close this gender equity gap.

And to make women like Basma visible again.

The joint policy brief ‘Promoting Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment in Eye Health’ by The Fred Hollows Foundation and UN Women was launched in New York.

Image on top: Optometrist and ophthalmic nurse Khamthan Amath looks for the right prescription/ Aildrene Israel Tan