With International Women’s Day coming up on March 8, this is a good time to reflect on the advances we’ve seen over the last 20 years in gender equity in the field of international eye care. We’ve made real progress and we need to stay focused on this issue to ensure that women will one day have the same access to eye care as their male counterparts.
Data from 2001 from the IAPB (International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness) showed that two-thirds of all people in the world who were blind were women. In the developed world, this disparity is largely due to the fact that women tend to live longer than men and rates of blindness increase in older populations. In the developing world, however, where there is a much higher incidence of avoidable blindness, this disparity is an outgrowth of the imbalance of power and opportunity between women and men.
In many underserved regions of the world, the cataract surgery rate for women can be half that of men. Barriers to accessing eye care are faced by both men and women in underserved regions but are “often more problematic for women,” according to the IAPB’s Gender and Blindness website. Barriers for women can include such things as lower income, fewer travel options, lack of social support, and lack of access to information. Women have a lower literacy rate than men in many places, and that can hold them back from learning about and accessing opportunities for care.
The latest data from IAPB’s 2018 Vision Atlas shows an encouraging improvement in this situation. The worldwide percentage of blind people who are women has decreased from 66% to 55%. It’s exciting to see real progress on this important issue.
Dr. Suzanne Gilbert, Senior Director of Seva’s Innovation & Sight Program, is a founding member of the IAPB Gender Equity Work Group and has been leading Seva’s work on gender equity in eye care for many years. Elizabeth Kishiki, member of KCCO (Kilimanjaro Centre for Community Ophthalmology), a key Seva partner in Africa, is the co-chair of the IAPB work group. Seva and partner organizations are committed to making eye care more accessible for women and girls.