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Alem Mekonnen

Alem Mekonnen is a public health expert and female changemaker who manages Light for the World’s eye health programme in Ethiopia.

Her work and vision are driven by her strong conviction that services must be as close as possible to people living in rural and disadvantaged communities.

With her team, and in close cooperation with partner organisations and the Ministry of Health, Alem works on setting up and sustaining eye health services and structures which leave no one behind.

She won’t accept the fact that women and girls often have much less access to eye health. She is convinced we have to challenge gender norms, using targeted strategies to ensure that women and girls get equitable access to services.

Alem has a learning mindset and always starts with looking at the whole context, players and situation to determine where interventions are most necessary. She understands the urgency for intervention in the lives of those who are turning blind from preventable or treatable causes.

A key strategy in her work is partnership with the government health system, including Ministry of Health, National Committee on the Prevention of Blindness, and regional health bureaus.

“Strengthening the public system is the key to comprehensive, long-term, sustainable eye health services. That includes human resource development and capacity building at local level – that’s where change happens,” she explains.

Her insights into barriers and gaps in eye health mean she also looks beyond mere service provision, making sure to address socio-economic problems which prevent people from getting much needed eyecare treatments.

“People living in remote rural areas must travel for days to access specialized eye health services. Costs for transport and accommodation are serious barriers, standing in the way of their right to health. This is where change is necessary, where quality services must be introduced. I’m proud to work with our partners in making this change happen.”

At age 35, Alem has already contributed massively to a transformation of the eye health system of her country.

Her many achievements include:

– Support to partners and government in the design and budgeting of comprehensive eye health programmes

– Bringing eyecare services closer to the communities, in particular to the most disadvantaged people, through the creation of eye health outreach programmes

– Encouraging partners and eye health staff to address gender norms and devise ways to ensure women and girls get full and equal access to care

– Connecting the different levels of eyecare: Alem worked with Gondar University Tertiary Eye Unit in setting up support on Glaucoma management for Secondary Eye Units in the region. With Addis Ababa University Menelik II Hospital she established the first fellowship programme on Glaucoma.

– Piloting Child Eye Health services at district level with the health bureaus, universities and local hospitals, with built-in learning and data collection for future scale-up. To gain expertise, she trained in Uganda at the National Intervention on Uncorrected Refractive Errors with Light for the World’s technical director Wolfgang Gindorfer.

“I fall in love with my role all over again when I witness joyful girls, boys, women, and men who get their sight back. It’s priceless to watch their faces light up when they realise they are able to see their loved ones again or even for the first time!”

– Alem Mekonnen