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Can Good Vision be a Catalyst For a More Equitable World?

So many of the issues women face will remain unsolved unless we also consider the importance that good vision plays. Women cannot receive the best education if classrooms are blurry to them. They can’t travel to work safely unless they can assess the road situation around them. They can’t stand up for themselves, with confidence, if they are unable to focus on what is in front of them.

We recently talked with Laura Herman, Vice President, BOP Strategy and Advocacy at Essilor, to get her take on how good vision can play a part in creating a more equitable world.

“As an enabler of education and professional outcomes, good vision is central to everyone’s future prospects. Since we are looking at very long timeframes until we see gender equity in terms of women in political leadership roles (50 years), business leadership or pay (170 years), this is an important topic to consider.”

-Laura Herman

VII: How can we prioritize vision care for the world’s women?

Laura:    Ensuring all women have access to good vision will require the work of the public and private sectors.  Public health systems must ensure that vision screenings are include

d as part of regular public health care screenings, and at the primary health care level, where many rural women in emerging economies are most likely to receive health services. Where countries are contemplating how they will achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3 , particularly the target around universal health coverage, it is critical that vision is included in the basket of services provided. It’s also key that women are encouraged and empowered to take roles as vision care professionals: opticians, optometrists or ophthalmologists.

In the private sector, companies must invest in understanding the unique barriers that women might face in accessing vision products and services. These barriers may be a lack of awareness that affordable products and services do exist to address poor vision, or lack of education of the impact of poor vision on the ability to earn income, or lack of access because of the power dynamics in the home. When we can reach women and their families with this type of information, we’re also increasing the odds that children will receive vision services.

The private sector also has tremendous expertise when it comes to leveraging core skills in marketing to address stigma around wearing glasses. In addition, the private sector’s core competencies in innovation make it the perfect partner to experiment with new products and services.

VII: Poor vision among women can have effects beyond health. How do you see its impact in the broader global development landscape?

Laura:    As a global community, gender equity is central to many of the global goals that we have set for ourselves. When you look at the Sustainable Development Goals, they all depend on an improvement in gender equality.

For that, we need improvements in the educational outcomes for girls and more opportunities for economic, civic, and political participation for women. Good vision is a critical enabler of all of these opportunities. When Essilor evaluated the impact of glasses on women in rural villages in India, it found that 55 percent reported increased self-confidence and 92 percent reported a positive change in their social status. These are exactly the enablers that will support women’s continued participation and leadership in all elements of society.

Bill and Melinda Gates wrote in their annual letter last month “if all girls completed 12 years of quality education, women’s lifetime earnings would increase by as much as $30 trillion – more than the entire US economy.” However, we know from recent research that when children do not have good vision, their school performance suffers. We also know that when girls are able to complete their education and earn an income, whole communities benefit. Women reinvest 90 percent of their earned income in their family’s health and education, compared with men who invest 30-40 percent. Achieving our broader development goals depends on accelerating women’s and girls’ access to education and economic opportunities. Succeeding in both domains depends on having clear vision.

VII: We see that many women who wear glasses face cultural stigmas in some places. How can we break those stigmas?

Laura:    Breaking stigma is a hard topic to generalize about as the role of stigma varies so widely across countries and communities. In my opinion, I think that efforts to mainstream glasses by ensuring that “influentials” in a society are on board, and combining education with broad communications-related efforts are all key. In the US, you see celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Drew Barrymore wearing glasses, turning them into a fashion accessory.  This is tremendously influential for a young girl or woman who may worry about her appearance due to wearing her glasses. In India, a recent study revealed that 62 percent of high school students refused to wear glasses because they are “cosmetically unacceptable.”

In other contexts, we know that the use of “influentials” can include a whole range of people – from village elders, to religious leaders, to students who succeed in school.  The first lady of Nigeria tells a story of an immunization program that had stalled in a rural village until the Imam and his wife agreed to vaccinate their twins publicly.  There is tremendous power in the actions of anyone seen as a leader, and we must understand those local nuances if we seek to authentically influence the stigma in a particular geography.

When efforts to break stigmas become mainstream, they can influence norms across everyone – girls and boys, women and men.

VII:What role can men play in this discussion?

Laura: As with any gender-related topic, men and boys must engage. From the perspective of stigma, education for a whole community on the benefits of good vision would help everyone. The “telenovela” strategy that was so effective in Latin America over the years could also be relevant in the case of vision. To the extent that any mainstream entertainment medium – radio, TV, movies, internet – includes discussion and education about good vision as a part of the story line, it can go a long way in addressing stigma and encouraging people to act.

As an example East Los High was an internet television show developed as a tool for addressing issues facing Latina and Latino youth in the US, including sexual and reproductive health.  Grey’s Anatomy, is also a popular television show that has written in story lines about HIV-positive pregnant women to break the stigma associated with their decisions to carry their pregnancies forward.  I would love to see other mainstream entertainment outlets writing in story lines that demonstrate the impact of good vision on women and men, girls and boys.

Beyond addressing the issues of stigma, engaging men and boys in women’s and girl’s empowerment efforts is  critical. Men may hold significant decision-making rights in many families, and ultimately ensuring a woman’s ability to work outside the home, or a girl’s opportunity to attend school will depend on her male family members having a strong understanding of the benefits of good vision for all.  Breaking existing gender norms can be a long, slow process that cannot succeed without the intentional engagement of men and boys. One of my favorite examples of this, as it relates to girls’ empowerment, is the work that the Sesame Workshop is undertaking in its storylines in Afghanistan, India, and Bangladesh. In addition to writing in a strong girl character, they have also introduced her brother. Through the interactions of the two characters, they present alternative views of what girls are capable of achieving and what it means to treat children equitably.

VII: How do the private sector, NGOs, and policymakers make a collective impact on the topic?

Laura:  Similar to other efforts, bringing together a cross-sector coalition to tackle a problem depends on many factors. Aligning around a common aspiration and the strategy to achieve it, agreeing on the data that will be used to measure progress, considering the complementary skills and contributions that each will use to measure progress, considering the skills and contributions that each partner can offer, and ensuring continuous communication between partners are all critical.

Beyond that, in my experience, collective impact depends on a supporting, facilitative function that can help keep the effort moving. We have all seen broad partnerships where there is a good deal of enthusiasm at the start, but practically speaking, after a meeting or two, the participants find they are pulled back to their day jobs, and the effort associated with managing a complex partnership becomes too much to handle.

For partners making significant commitments around a global effort, investing in this supporting function is key. I authored an article a few years ago with colleagues from FSG around designing collective impact initiatives for global challenges. Determining the right architecture to support these partnerships is never straightforward, but definitely worth the effort in the end.

In vision, there is a wonderful opportunity to leverage the private sector expertise in product innovation and business model innovation, along with the public and NGO experience in providing for those who do not have access to vision services today. Numerous countries are already making efforts to align these different actors, and at the country level, you can imagine this type of partnership taking off quickly.

About Laura Herman:  Laura is the Vice President, BOP Strategy and Advocacy at Essilor. She leads a team that shapes the inclusive businesses across the global south, optimizes the philanthropy of the company to improve access to eye glasses, and advocates for the best enabling environments. Prior to joining Essilor, Laura was a Managing Director at FSG, a boutique social sector consulting firm. She joined FSG in 2002 and led the global health and gender equity practices. Her clients included leading non-profit organizations, private foundations, and corporations focused on strategy, evaluation, stakeholder engagement, and collective impact. Her work included in-country research in dozens of countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.