Women tend to have poorer access to healthcare than men. In traditionally patriarchal societies, the needs of women are often relegated to the back of the queue. Certain cultures also stop women from leaving their homes unaccompanied to seek medical attention - which can prevent them from accessing the assistance they need. At the same time, being examined by male doctors and medics can be forbidden. Yet it is often the case that men have higher access to education as well as healthcare, and in many places, the medical services are delivered mainly by men. Women also often earn less than men in developing countries, and those who live in poverty are particularly vulnerable as they might decide to forgo treatment in order to use resources to meet other needs.

The UN has identified achieving gender equality in health care as vital to the development of nations because of the critical role that women play as caregivers in households and the community. Although women in industrialized countries have narrowed the gender gap in life expectancy and now live longer than men, the gap in developing countries remains pronounced – even in areas of health that one might not necessarily think of as having a big gender disparity, such as eye health. 

More than 36 million people are blind world-wide and more than half are women. Around the world, women are 1.3 times more likely to go blind or become vision impaired than men. However, 4 out of every 5 cases of blindness can be treated – the issue is when people do not or cannot access quality, affordable eye health care.

For women in vulnerable contexts, vision impairment means more than decreased quality of life. In many places where disability access services are rudimentary or non-existent, being blind means that women are confined to their homes and are unable to contribute to household incomes. Being unable to actively look after their families and children also means that a woman’s perceived worth is diminished. Restoring sight to women increases their mobility and restores their sense of worth, ability to generate income and to care for their families, enabling them to build a more secure future.

International development aid organization such as The Fred Hollows Foundation develops programs that specifically target the barriers faced by women in accessing eye healthcare. These include misinformation (that degenerative eye disease cannot be treated) and lack of awareness about services, availability of eye health services nearby, affordability of services, and cultural barriers that prevent women being examined by male medical workers.

For example, in Pakistan and Bangladesh, we work with local hospitals and health agencies to train health workers who deliver maternal and child health services in eye care. On one hand, the training allows the workers to find women and children with eye health issues and refer them to local specialist services. On the other hand, there is better access to services because women are more likely to be aware of maternal and child health clinics and visit them. 

In Bangladesh, there are more than three million women working long shifts in garment factories six days a week. Maintaining intense focus on repetitive tasks for long periods of time creates eye health problems. However, such eye health conditions can be treated if detected early. The Foundation has established eye centers in factories and has trained women to help identify colleagues who need eye care. Taking eye programs to places where women work increases the chances of early detection and ongoing contact with services. In turn, this proactive approach allows women to continue to earn an income and support their families. 

Besides creating doorstep access for women to eye health, it is also important to train more women as health workers because in many regions, they are more likely to access services when they are run by women. For example, in China, ophthalmic nurses are trained to support surgeries, increasing the capacity of county-level hospitals to provide crucial sight-saving help to communities. In addition, female community health workers are trained to connect rural women (many of whom are illiterate) to eye health services through women’s groups and associations. In Laos, The Foundation supports senior ophthalmic nurses to take on lecturing and curriculum development roles to train new nurses every year.

Gender inequality damages the health and future prospects of millions of girls and women across the globe. However, if all stakeholders, from governments and civil society organizations like The Fred Hollows Foundation, to individuals – as service providers and services users - chip in, significant and sustainable change can be achieved. 

About the author:
Laura Lee is the Chief Representative, Hong Kong and ASEAN, of The Fred Hollows Foundation. Click here for more on Laura. 

A shorter version of this article was published on The South China Morning Post.