On the occasion of International Women’s Day, Dr Suzanne Gilbert from the Seva Foundation writes on her journey in eye care.
Women’s Day prompts me to reflect on the many ways women influence this work. As patients, as community leaders, local NGO members, national implementers, and INGO catalysts. For today, I am also thinking of the role women have played in the development of IAPB as a global umbrella organization for advocacy and action.
My first IAPB meeting was at WHO Headquarters in 1983 in my role at that time as Executive Director of the Seva Foundation. I was 32. In those days, there were no women among the WHO Prevention of Blindness technical staff nor were any of the IAPB member INGOs headed by women. In fact, for that matter there were few people under the age of 45 or so.
The organization was just finding its purpose and rapidly working to establish national Blindness Prevention Committees in as many countries as possible. In these pre-internet and even pre-FAX days, meeting face to face was absolutely critical to coordinating coherent planning and service delivery patterns. So, preparation for meetings was extensive and required extra efforts to pull together even the most basic information. By the mid-1990s, women were taking on high visibility research roles and programme positions within NGOs. A few women were coming in as Executive Directors/CEOs.
For me personally, I had a lot to juggle throughout these years with small children, an active community and home life; responsibility for building an organization, and also my passion for global blindness prevention. I could not have possibly been so active on the IAPB Board and within Committees without the encouragement of the few other women involved in IAPB and my own family and Seva organization. Sometimes encouragement came in the form of small acts of kindness. I recall being concerned that I was leaving a few hours early from an IAPB meeting at the National Eye Institute in Bethesda in order to pick up my toddler son from a baby sitter. Al Sommer, who was chairing the session, noted that not only was he supportive of my heading out early but that he wished he at times had done the same in his own family life. This meant a lot of me and has stayed with me over the three decades.
Today, women are considerably more central and visible within IAPB. We now have the opportunity to ensure that the organization is equally inclusive of all of our members who bring such vital perspectives, talents, and passion for the work.