Late in February, I had the privilege of spending a week with Vision Impact Institute (VII) colleagues in India, experiencing the culture and taking a deeper dive into the role of vision health in this vast and populous country. I was amazed at the beauty and cultural diversity around every corner, and I embraced these precious moments to absorb every experience from an outsider’s perspective. However, as I participated in business meetings and personal interactions on numerous levels, I was accepted into the culture as an equal, as an expert and as a woman.
In some geographies, this might seem inconsequential. But in India, being accepted as an equal and a woman can sometimes be rare. I learned from my colleagues and through these experiences that disparity often exists between men and women – in career choices, educational opportunities, and even in healthcare, cultural stereotypes and beliefs.
From a visual health perspective, one of the most critical gender imbalances exists in the social stigma attached to wearing spectacles. The concept of a woman’s beauty (fair skin, medium height, thin) has been so deeply ingrained in the nature of Indian society that women who match these criteria and wear spectacles are often considered unattractive. In some communities (even the urban rich), there is a long-perpetuated stigma associated with a girl’s ability to marry if she is wearing eyeglasses. In many cases, young women are waiting too long to correct their vision and it can have serious consequences.
A recent study shows that in rural India, in students ages 7 to 15, the rate of myopia is higher in girls. This would suggest the need for correction is greater in young girls than in their male peers. Yet another study of students in grades 8 to 10 clearly identifies the need for education to dissolve barriers to spectacle wear. The study performed a pre-education survey of students to determine attitudes and behaviors around spectacle wear and found that 32% of students were avoiding spectacles out of concern for being seen as “unattractive to the opposite sex” or “cosmetically unacceptable” – and 65% of these students were girls. In fact, nearly a third of the students polled suggested that “one should not marry a spectacle wearer.”
This study went on to highlight that education and a post survey reflected improved attitudes and behaviors on behalf of these same students. As the study’s authors conclude, “This type of conditioning not only affects the immediate recipients of such education, but also future generations will benefit from improved and properly cultivated ideas about health that will eventually be ingrained with widely spread health education.” Breaking incorrect stereotypes and stigmas is key!
As we elevate the priority of vision health on a global scale, our discussions must include an educated view of vision health and its benefits, a shift in mindset and a long-term solution for change. By addressing the root causes of this disparity, we can change the future for generations to come. Let’s continue to work together – Giving Vision a Voice!