Eye disease discriminates – but we can change that

Eye disease discriminates – but we can change that

“In East Africa, life for the blind is paralysing. Many women are too poor to afford the bus fare to the clinic or hospital, or for a family member to stop work for a week to take them there.”

Dr Ciku (Wanjiku) Mathenge is a highly-trained senior ophthalmologist who has transformed the lives of countless people. Kenyan by nationality but now living in Rwanda, Ciku is the Regional Medical Advisor for The Fred Hollows Foundation. During her career, Ciku has witnessed several positive changes to eye health in the region, but there is still a noticeable disparity between the rate of blindness in women and men. The answer to this problem, Ciku believes, lies in education and training. 

Eye disease discriminates

People think that major diseases such as cancer and heart disease don’t discriminate between men and women,” says Ciku. “But that’s not true of eye disease. Almost two thirds of the world’s blind are women, and in every region of the world, women are more likely to be blind than men.

The reasons for this are varied.  For some women, it’s cultural – the health of males in the family is often prioritised over women and girls. For others, a lack of education means they aren’t even aware they can get help. 

Why effective eye surgery training matters

In recent times, Ciku has been heartened to see more women in Rwanda and Kenya having eye surgery and regaining their sight. This is because eye care is covered under the national health scheme and because of support of NGOs such as The Fred Hollows Foundation.

There has also been an increase in female health professionals, which means many women who aren’t comfortable with male doctors are more likely to seek help. This rise in female surgeons with necessary skills is largely due to training from organisations like The Foundation. “Some of my patients are surprised to see a woman doctor,” says Ciku. “They look up at me after I’ve taken their bandages off and say, ‘Oh would you please thank the doctor?’ To which I’ve replied, ‘I’m the doctor.’ And then they say, ‘Yes, but I want to see the big doctor!'”

Attitudes take time to change, but young women are inspired by doctors like Ciku. “When I began studying medicine in Nairobi, there were only 10 women studying medicine out of a course of 100. It was such a rarity and some of the students had never seen a woman wearing trousers. But today at the same university, there are almost three females studying ophthalmology to every male.”

Education transforms lives

Ciku was a graduate doctor when The Foundation’s then-medical director taught her how to do intraocular lens surgery, the inexpensive, and then-revolutionary way of restoring sight to someone who has cataracts. She then went on to train many other surgeons in this simple and effective technique.

When a quick, inexpensive procedure has such a profound impact, the effect of training even one surgeon is extraordinary. “Often it is like a second life for the parents or grandparents as well. Afterwards, they are free to look after their other children, and to return to work and lift the family one further step out of poverty.”

Ciku remains hopeful about training more female doctors and increasing education and outreach. If we can do this, then perhaps eye disease will no longer discriminate and we’ll be even further along the path of ending avoidable blindness.  “In East Africa, we’ve freed thousands of women from a life of blindness, so we can do it in any corner of the world.”

To learn more:

Why blindness is a gender issue

Five facts about childhood blindness you need to know

The only children’s eye doctor in Burundi

The Importance of Learning: Girls and Blindness in Developing Countries

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Fred Hollows Foundation

The Fred Hollows Foundation is a recommended charity of The Life You Can Save. To date, the Foundation has performed over a million cataract surgeries, restoring eyesight to some of neediest people in Africa, Asia, and Australia. The Foundation’s Australia initiatives focus on blindness prevention and eye care among Australia’s indigenous populations.

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The views expressed in blog posts are those of the author, and not necessarily those of Peter Singer or The Life You Can Save.