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Women's and Girls' Access to Vision Care Affects Education and Livelihoods


On March 8, the world marks International Women’s Day, a day to celebrate women’s achievements and reinforce our shared commitment to preserving women’s equality. As I write this, I’m struck by the fact that this International Women’s Day marks two years since the start of the pandemic that changed all of our lives. Globally, women and girls have taken the brunt of the pandemic’s impact in multiple ways, but perhaps one of the most-documented is education.


Research from UNICEF suggests that significant improvement had been made in this area over the past few decades - improving from 1:2 girls enrolled in school in 1985 to 2:3 more recently. However, with the onset of the pandemic, girls’ education has been negatively affected in many parts of the world as students still endure school shutdowns. According to the Malala Fund, almost 90% of the world’s countries closed their schools to slow the transmission of COVID-19. It goes on to say that 20 million girls may not return to school once the pandemic subsides.


Those of us advocating for school eye health programs have experienced challenges around girls’ vision from the beginning, and the current world situation does not improve our chances.

Research suggests that 55% of the people with vision loss globally are women and girls, and in many places stigmas exist that prevent them from getting the vision care and services they need.

If girls aren’t in school, how do we ensure that they can see well to achieve future success? If much of our work in the past has centered on making the connection between good vision and learning in the classroom, how do we advocate for these future leaders when the classroom is no longer accessible?


Here are a few ways worth considering:


Think beyond the classroom.

According to experts, 80% of all learning occurs visually, meaning children with poor vision are at a major disadvantage if they can’t see well in the classroom. For this reason, schools and other educational settings are often the first place a child’s vision problems are recognized. We must continue making the connection between learning and good vision for those girls who do return to schools and realize that schools are only one point of access for education about vision.

Consider the benefits of integrating vision care into services at community health clinics, women’s health centers, and other local health facilities. Similar models have been implemented in the past. For example, a study of the Ebola epidemic in Sierra Leone in 2014-2016 found that “while girls experienced some of the most significant negative effects from closing schools, these negative effects were lessened by community-based programs aimed at supporting and encouraging adolescents.”


This level of integration requires us to make connections with community leaders, beyond those in education, and expand our reach to others who may see children on a regular basis, like health workers, pediatricians, and other community leaders.


Provide an equal seat at the table.

According to the UN, there are 225 COVID-19 task forces in 137 countries, but only 24% of the people serving on them are women. Ensuring women are advocating for the needs of girls and women is a path that many organizations are adopting as a way forward. Perhaps we, as vision advocates, need to assess our own response to ensuring equal representation at the table. We must ask: Are we doing enough?


Highlight the economic and societal benefits of educated women.

It’s clear that the return on investment when girls are educated is high, especially for broader societies and economies. “The earnings increment associated with more education is, in fact, higher for women than for men,” according to a 2014 research paper from The World Bank. And on average, one additional year of schooling increases women’s wages by 12% (compared to 10% for men). When girls can see well, they can learn and ultimately make their best contributions to economies and societies.

In a perfect world, all our actions would be built on a foundation of solid evidence and data. However, when it comes to ensuring girls have equitable access to healthy vision in today’s world, we are literally building the plane as we’re flying it. Will history be kind to us when the evidence is presented? Will our actions today build a more equitable future tomorrow?


A recent story brought this issue to life for me. It highlights Purity and Lucy, two Kenyan girls who have not been able to return to school. Their lives have been turned upside down, and they continue to face challenges, but they are hopeful that they can complete their education. A quote from their story stood out to me: “Lucy wants to study the moon and become an astronaut. Purity has dreams, too.”


For many girls, school is not only a ticket to a better life today – it’s a lifeline to their aspirations. As vision advocates, we all play a role in helping them see that future clearly. It’s what gives us hope to carry on, even when the work is challenging.

 

Andrea Kirsten-Coleman is the Global Communications and Awareness Manager at the Vision Impact Institute. In her role, she is responsible for telling the story of, and creating awareness of, the need to prioritize healthy vision on a global scale.