Over half — 55% — of people who suffer from vision loss are women and girls, according to statistics from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness. Women and girls are also more likely to experience mild vision impairment, moderate to severe vision impairment, and various other eye conditions.
When women are prevented from correcting their vision, there are serious long-term health consequences, including blindness. Women with vision impairment can also have their quality of life impacted; they are less likely to participate in activities in the household or outside, and their ability to gain independence and autonomy of any kind is thereby severely hindered.
This is more likely to be the case in low- and middle-income countries where women often put the health needs of other family members ahead of their own. In male-dominated societies, where men control all resourcing decisions and are viewed as the main breadwinners, they may be more likely to stand first in line for health care. Lower literacy levels among women also contribute to a lack of access to information on the importance of good vision.
Compounding the problem is the concept of what constitutes beauty. Many women are expected to look and dress a certain way to ensure a successful life. This concept influences and reinforces long-held and deeply ingrained stigmas around wearing glasses, preventing women and girls from getting poor vision corrected.
This is a worldwide issue. In many cultures, girls can be viewed as “defective” and therefore less likely to marry, rather than “effective” if they wear glasses. In contrast, wearing glasses is often perceived as making boys look more intelligent.
How can we work together to address these challenges?
Female Eye Mitras gaining influence as opinion leaders
Essilor currently has almost 8,000 Eye Mitras — which means “friend of the eye” in Sanskrit — in India, and approximately 12% are female. It is currently undertaking a gender study to better understand the impact that female Eye Mitras can make.
So far, baseline results are promising. Since becoming Eye Mitras, the women have increased their participation in community organizations, such as common interest groups, and more of them are now in leadership roles within these community organizations. They also report that other women in their communities are now seeking their opinion on important matters — a definite boon to women and girls accessing eye care services.
1. Engage communities and families. Raising awareness of the importance of good vision is key to ensuring entire communities, including women, recognize the need to seek help when it is required. Launched in Uttar Pradesh, India in 2019, the See Now campaign — created by The Fred Hollows Foundation and supported by partners such as Vision For Life, Essilor’s social impact fund — aims to increase awareness and drive public mobilization to end avoidable blindness and vision impairment.
International superstar Amitabh Bachchan was chosen to be the public face of the campaign, not just because of his enormous public appeal but also because of his previous health work and reputation for encouraging people to access health services. He is a proud wearer of glasses, which has encouraged others to wear glasses without any stigma.
The campaign saw eye health messaging being passed among families and communities — in fact, while men were overwhelmingly the recipients of the calls on eye health messages, women were the predominant attendees at eye screening camps.
2. Nurture more female primary vision care providers to improve access. Nurturing more female primary vision care providers can help women and girls feel more comfortable about accessing eye care services.
For Essilor — whose Eye Mitra and Eye Mitro programs in India and Bangladesh train unemployed and underemployed young people to become primary vision care providers, taking vision care where it was unavailable before — it has been a challenge to attract and retain female primary vision care providers.
However, by working to build relationships and trust at the community and family levels, Essilor has seen success in both programs. Today, 12% of its primary vision care providers in rural India and Bangladesh are female — an encouraging statistic for traditionally patriarchal societies.
Eye Mitros in Bangladesh championing gender equality and female empowerment
Essilor’s Eye Mitro program in Bangladesh is a champion of gender equality and female empowerment. When the program first launched in 2018, there were only a few women enrolled, and those who did would often drop out halfway. A field study identified family and community concerns about women working outside of the home as a key barrier.
To successfully attract and retain female vision care providers, their families and communities are now involved in the recruitment process. Prospective recruits, their families, and communities are also encouraged to meet and hear from successful female trainees.
3. Keep the dialogue flowing. To challenge the stigmas around women wearing glasses, we must keep the dialogue flowing by drawing attention to the stories of women across the world being stigmatized. This way, we can help to normalize the notion of wearing glasses.
The Vision Impact Institute continues to highlight the issue, raise awareness, and shine a spotlight on stories of stigma faced by women. For example, a female news presenter in South Korea made news in 2018 for wearing glasses on air, as this was the first time a female presenter in the country had ever done so. In 2019, there were reports about Japanese women being discouraged from wearing glasses at work for fear they may appear “cold” and “unfeminine.”
All these stories were amplified by the Vision Impact Institute to drive forth the conversation. Our goal is to ultimately achieve a global consensus that women’s vision matters to everyone, through these conversations and more.
Ensuring women and girls everywhere have access to vision care should matter to us all as a crucial step toward female empowerment. Without good vision or access to products and services to correct vision problems, women cannot fulfill their important roles in families, communities, and society.
Achieving gender-equitable vision care requires a committed multipartner approach of structural change, education, awareness-raising, and relationship-building with communities and families. Only then can we progress together toward debunking the many societal and cultural stigmas standing in the way of us eliminating poor vision in the world by 2050.
Devex, with financial support from our partner Essilor, is exploring challenges, solutions, and innovations in eye care and vision. Visit the Focus on: Vision page for more.