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Raising the importance of gender equity in eye health at Women Deliver 2023

Published: 08.08.2023
Louisa Syrett Head of Gender Advocacy and Engagement
The Fred Hollows Foundation

The Women Deliver 2023 (WD23) conference is probably one of the largest, if not the largest, gender equality conference globally.  It meets every three years and due to a combination of factors, had not met since 2019. As soon as WD23 was announced, the IAPB Gender Equity Work Group (GEWG) decided that this year, we wanted to take this opportunity to raise the importance of gender equity in eye health with the wider gender equality sector.

Thanks to contributions from The Fred Hollows Foundation, Orbis, Sightsavers, Seva, Santen, Mission for Vision, HCP Cure Blindness, Light for the World, Operation Eyesight and the IAPB, the Gender Equity Work Group was able to have an exhibition booth at WD23 which focussed on women’s leadership in eye health.

Eye health mirrors the wider health sector and so we know that women make up over 70% of the global health workforce; however, they hold only 25% of global health leadership posts and generally have lower status, lower pay, or even unpaid roles. Excluding women from leadership positions in global health results in negative consequences for the success of health care services, systems and delivery. Achieving equal representation in positions of power across health, matters.

Alongside having a physical presence with the exhibition booth and members of the GEWG attending (including myself) the GEWG also used the opportunity to launch our ‘Gender Equity in Eye Health survey report’, a survey which tracks the progress eye health is making as a sector, towards a more gender equal world both programmatically but also across its leadership.  Results from 2022 indicate that there is still more to do; however, eye health is closing the gap on the number of male/female CEO with more males in CEO roles (55%) but less than in previous years.  The sector also has more organisations disaggregating their data by gender which is great to see; however, there is room for growth when it comes to stating intentions for gender equity in programming and from an organisational development perspective.  Our next survey will run in November 2024 and the GEWG is laser focussed on supporting the sector to improve its results further.

While at WD23, I was reminded by how often vision is overlooked. When I spoke to people, explaining both my role as Head of Gender Advocacy at The Fred Hollows Foundation and as the Secretariat of the GEWG, almost everyone was surprised both by the fact that more women than men are blind or have vision loss globally, but also about the catalytic role eye health can play in unlocking opportunity towards achieving an equal world for women and girls.

One theme that I heard consistently throughout the conference was the link between climate and gender, an area both IAPB and The Foundation focussed on in statements to the UN Commission for the Status of Women in 2022 because we know that in the face of a changing climate, extreme weather-related hazards have become more frequent and dangerous. Deep-rooted gender inequity means that, despite the incredible resilience and capacity for survival that women often exhibit in the face of disaster, the resulting vulnerabilities put their overall health and survival at greater risk. Up to 80% of those displaced by climate change are women. Women and girls suffering vision impairment are at exceptionally high risk of injury or death in an emergency due to their mobility being hampered as well as their predominant role as caregivers for children and vision impaired family members.  We were challenged by Mary Robinson, Chair of the Elders and previous President of Ireland, not to ignore the power of our changing climate and the priority it must have alongside everything else we campaign on.  Anyone interested in following climate and gender justice should follow Project Dandelion, a campaign, a new women-led climate justice campaign.

Looking back on my four days in Kigali I am struck by the power and energy this conference generated – we must not lose that momentum. To close, let me quote Mary Robinson, Graça Machel and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf repeated calls through WD23: “Women’s leadership is vital in building an equitable, fair and just future’.

About the Gender Equity Work Group (GEWG)

If you are an IAPB member and are interested in gender equity in eye health, please consider joining our GEWG. The GEWG works to foster partnership and collaboration between NGOs who are active around gender equity. The primary role of the GEWG is to facilitate shared learning and exchange of good practices on and inform/guide advocacy efforts on gender equity.