People often say disease doesn’t discriminate: cancer, Ebola, heart disease.
But one disease – eye disease – certainly does.
Two-thirds of the world’s blind people are women; in every region of the world, women are more likely than men to be blind.
There are five reasons why eye disease is a gender issue that’s keeping women out of the workforce:
1. Kids can make their mothers go blind. It’s mostly toddlers who carry a bug known as active trachoma, which causes an infectious eye inflammation. Women are more likely to stay at home to care for the kids, so they are more than twice as likely as men to be repeatedly infected. Trachoma – the leading cause of infectious blindness in the world – can make the eyelashes curl inwards and scratch the cornea, causing excruciating pain and blindness if left untreated.
2. Women are less able to get treatment. In many communities, men control the family finances and their medical needs are prioritised. It can also be harder for women to travel because of family responsibilities, or for cultural reasons.
3. Women and girls have to care for blind relatives. Preventable blindness doesn’t just affect the person who has lost their sight. Girls often have to leave school to care for their adult relatives who have gone blind. When they miss out on an education, they earn less and are more likely to be stuck in poverty as adults themselves – and their children, too.
4. The discrimination starts early. The gap between rates of blindness in girls compared to boys is even higher than the gap between women and men. Most of these girls are in developing countries where it’s already harder for them to escape the cycle of poverty. If they’re also blind, it’s almost impossible for them to learn and earn a living when they’re older.
5. Blindness heightens the risk of dying. An estimated half of all children who become blind will die within two years. Those who live are only expected to reach 40 years of age. More girls and women are blind, which means more of them are at risk of dying from blindness.
Preventable blindness has big implications for women trying to enter the workforce and support their families. It’s an economic development issue which is why correcting vision loss brings the greatest benefits for the poorest families. For example, in India, 58% of women who had cataract surgery were able to return to the workforce. A recent study in Vietnam showed many people who had eye surgery worked longer hours and could then pay household bills, rent and medical expenses.
What is arguably most shocking of all is the fact that four out of five people who are blind don’t need to be. Their blindness can be prevented with eye health awareness and screening, medical innovation and trained medical staff.
Today, The Fred Hollows Foundation is one of the world’s leading not-for-profits working to restore sight to people in more than 20 developing countries. Dr Zongfa Wang, in China, was trained in cataract surgery by a Fred Hollows Foundation surgeon.
He says: “A cured patient helps the whole family, because it means someone – usually a young woman – doesn’t have to look after them anymore, and is free to return to school or work. For people in their 40s, it means they can get a job and improve their family’s finances.”
In 2013, the Foundation supported the following sight-saving work for girls and women:
• Antibiotics given to 116,820 girls to prevent trachoma
• Trachoma surgery: 429 girls and 8,959 women
• Cataract surgery: 1,381 girls and 64,371 women
• Pairs of glasses distributed: 14,408 to girls and 25,909 to women
For more information, or to donate go to: www.hollows.org.au
Top picture: Alo, 27, from Chittagong in Bangladesh lost her job as a garment worker after going blind with cataract in both eyes. She couldn’t even see to thread a needle. She and her husband, an auto-rickshaw driver, couldn’t afford school fees, so Alo had been teaching their son at home. When she lost her sight, her husband had to return home early to teach their son instead. Alo underwent cataract surgery supported by The Fred Hollows Foundation.
Credit: Sam Phelps for The Fred Hollows Foundation
Bottom picture: Razia Beghim (centre right), from Safdarabad, in Punjab province, Pakistan, was blind with cataract in both eyes. Her daughter Shazia (centre left), 12, would go to school from 10am to 2:30pm and then return home to care for her mother and do most of the household chores and cooking. The family lives on less than 4000 rupees a month (less than AUD$50) and couldn’t afford medical treatment for Razia’s eyesight. After surgery supported by The Fred Hollows Foundation, she has regained sight in her left eye.
Credit: Joe Boughton-Dent for The Fred Hollows Foundation