"It holds the key to unlock… darkness."
The darkness that Veronica refers to is avoidable blindness and the key is her handbag. Or, rather, what’s inside her handbag. A large beige-brown tote full of eye-care medication, Veronica's bag is an important tool in her quest to help her community gain better access to eye care.
As an ophthalmic nurse based at Katilu Eye Unit Turkana, Kenya, Veronica travels from village to village, administering crucial assessments and eye care that will alter the course of these patients’ lives.
Veronica's help is so important because, in Kenya, 80 per cent of people live in rural communities. They have little or no access to even basic eye care, and it’s blind women who often get the least help of all.
Why is blindness a gender issue?
In every region of the world, women are more likely to be blind than men. Today, there are 32.4 million people who are blind in the world and two thirds of them are women.
There's a variety of factors that come into play to create this gender disparity. For example, in some developing countries, it’s cultural – the health of males is prioritised over women. Other times, a lack of education means women are unaware they can seek help.
Blind women in Africa and Asia can face discrimination. They’re discriminated against based on their gender, their financial status, and their disability. Many are unable to earn an income, they can't travel for healthcare and they're at risk of extreme hardship and violence.
Heartening signs in Kenya
In Kenya, there are some heartening signs. Support from NGOs like The Fred Hollows Foundation and changes to eye care under national health reforms means more women are having the eye surgeries they so desperately need.
There has also been an increase in the number of female health workers. This means many women who aren't comfortable with male doctors are now more likely to seek help. The increase in the number of female health professionals with crucial eye care skills is largely because of training from organisations like The Fred Hollows Foundation.
Some women making a big difference in Kenya are Veronica, Mercy and Dr Sitati. These dedicated professionals are working to ensure more Kenyans have their sight restored through screening, education and training efforts.
Read on to find out their stories.
Veronica walks a long road to nursing
Veronica started her journey as a rural health care worker in Turkana County with very little eye care knowledge. Health care is a serious challenge here, where banditry, poverty and poor roads make it incredibly difficult for residents to access medical services.
These difficulties mean that patients may need to walk between 20 and 30 kilometres to health clinics. When they reach these clinics, there’s often a scarcity of medical equipment and drugs. Sometimes patients are treated by a nurse aide who doesn’t have specific eye care knowledge.
This was a situation that frustrated Veronica. Eye patients travelled to see her, but she had to send them home without treatment. "I was so burdened when I saw young mothers suffering from trachoma, children with trichiasis desperate to go to school, fathers trying to fend for their families with agony and suffering. [There was] nobody to guide them on what to do," said Veronica.
I was so burdened when I saw young mothers suffering from trachoma… fathers trying to fend for their families with agony and suffering...
- Veronica, Ophthalmic Nurse
Luckily, Veronica was able to advance her skills through training from The Fred Hollows Foundation in Katilua.
Through The Foundation she has also been able to train other community health volunteers around Turkana County.
These days, Veronica travels from village to village around Turkana on a weekly basis. She carries her eye drops in her bag in case she meets a patient in need. "If I don’t carry this medicine and I meet an eye patient who is really in need, I'll feel so guilty because it will take me another month or so to visit the area," says Veronica.
Image Caption: Mercy often carries children in her arms to and from the theatre
Mercy Mbayi is another extraordinary nurse making a difference in Kenya.
In rural areas, where 80 per cent of people live, access to health services is extremely limited. That’s why Mercy often travels up to 600 kilometres to screen and refer children to the Sabatia Eye Hospital.
"Nursing is a calling," Mercy said. "l get emotionally attached to people, mostly when I see parents weeping at the mention of their children being blind due to cataracts."
Nursing is a calling...
- Mercy Mbayi, Nurse
Mercy trains Fred Hollows Foundation-supported students at the hospital during their three-month ophthalmic training course. It’s such important work because these people are the first port of call for many patients – and their help could be the difference between a life of blindness and a life of sight.
Dr. Sitati’s rare position
In a population of over 40 million people, Kenya has only eight paediatric ophthalmologists.
Dr. Sitati is one of these rare individuals. As a physician at the Sabatia Eye Hospital, she advocates for early treatment, especially in children. "The earlier we treat, the better the outcomes."
But even if a patient has been referred right away, they may not have the ability to pay for treatment, since 43 per cent of people live on less than $1.25 a day. A life of poverty was certainly the case for Nabiritha, a recent patient of Dr. Sitati's who was born with bilateral cataract.
Noticing early on that something was wrong, Nabiritha's mother took her to hospitals and clinics, but she could not find help or afford the surgery. It was seven long years before Nabiritha was able to undergo surgery thanks to the assistance of The Fred Hollows Foundation.
The surgery has provided not only Nabiritha with a new life, but has transformed her mother Emily. With her husband at work and no one else to help her care for her blind child, working wasn’t an option for Emily.
Dr. Sitati finds the situation in Kenya frustrating but recognises the importance of training. "Usually it’s about [the patient's] ability to pay, so we need well-wishers to support these children… we also do a lot of training of the nurses in the community so that they can help us identify them and refer them to us."
The flow on effect is exponential
Training and education are so important because even one properly trained doctor or nurse can help perform hundreds more surgeries, benefiting hundreds of families and their communities.
By training more women like Veronica, Mercy and Dr Sitati, we can create a ripple effect within the communities they serve. This helps people go back to school or work, but importantly, it empowers women to seek help.
The Foundation is committed to reducing the gender disparity in avoidable blindness in Kenya and around the world. Fewer blind women in the world is a win not just for those women, but it's a win for all of us - and is a major step in the fight against avoidable blindness.
Want to know more? Find out some powerful statistics on gender and blindness.