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Published: 08.03.2017

On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Lene Øverland, CEO of Orbis Africa writes on the barriers that African women face accessing eye care and what difference it can make to their lives.


For decades, Susana Saliyembe has had one of the most important jobs on planet Earth: raising her children and grandchildren.

Increasingly, scientists from a variety of disciplines are coming to understand the huge role that our early childhood development plays in how our brains develop.

Simply put, the love, nutrition, protection and stimulation we get from conception through to our fifth birthday is what determines how our brains will be hard-wired.

Imagine then, what happens, when someone who carries the next generation in their hands, loses their sight? If the eyes are the window to the soul, they are also a window onto the enormous role that women (mothers and grandmothers alike) play in communities in Africa. That is why it is everybody’s business that women are more vulnerable to blindness than men.

In Africa, women are 1.4 times more likely to go blind than men and 57% of the vision-impaired in South Africa are women. In many African countries, twice as many women as men have cataracts

Eye health conditions are a major setback for women – especially because their gender acts as barrier against receiving appropriate care. For example: in many countries in the region, men are 1.7 times more likely to have their cataracts surgically removed than women.

If women had the same access, cataract blindness would be reduced by 12%, and a great many women would be released from the darkness that someone like Susana had been living in while trying to fulfil her role in her family and community.

Her children were already adults when she went blind, but her young grandchildren also stood to lose so much if Susana – who is often their primary caregiver – never regained her sight.

She had to overcome many barriers to seek help at the Orbis Africa eye health outreach programme in her native Zambia, and when she did, the tables turned once again. Instead of being a burden to her children and grandchildren, she could resume her role as a pillar of strength in the family.

We only know Susana’s story because it has a happy ending. There are countless others needlessly suffering from blindness.

In sub-Saharan Africa, it can be a vicious cycle for women who generally lack the knowledge of what type of treatment is available. Even if they have the knowledge, they often can’t leave home to get treatment because many people are relying on them for care and nurturing.  Then, if they do manage to leave home to seek help, transport costs are a barrier. All this often takes place in a socio-cultural context where women are unable to make decisions for themselves and their families because of power structures.

Yet, often, the provision of spectacles or suitable treatment is what keeps a woman from being able put food on the table and educating her kids.

This means that when women are left without treatment, it has a domino effect on other family members. When existing structures are relied upon in an effective way, a great many women can seek the help that they need and preventable blindness can be stopped in its tracks.

Once their sight is restored, their ability to hold the community together and nurture the children is upheld. And when that happens, everybody wins. It takes a village to be bold for change!

Photo courtesy: Helen White, Orbis Africa

Also read:International Women’s Day