Why are 20 million women worldwide still needlessly blind?

Over two thirds of people in the world who are blind are women announce the development charity Sightsavers International, who was speaking out about this staggering gender bias this World Sight Day (8 October).

Today there are more than 20 million women in the world who are needlessly blind, 90% of whom live in developing countries. This is largely because women are still often last in line for medical care warns the charity. Cultural, social and economic factors often act as a barrier for women when accessing medication, surgery, eye tests and glasses, leaving women more exposed to blindness.

Two of the main causes of blindness amongst women are cataract and trachoma. Surveys of African and Asian countries, where cataract is the biggest cause of blindness, reveal that women account for almost 75% of cataract cases simply because they do not receive surgery at the same rate as men. The statistics for trachoma, a disease that as well as being caused by poverty exacerbates poverty, are similar with women accounting for 85% of the advanced and blinding cases in the developing world.

Sightsavers is warning that trachoma levels could rise in Eastern Africa due to the drought, thwarting efforts by the charity and its partners to bring the disease under control. In Kenya, where regular drug distribution camps have been held throughout 2009, there may be a need for further camps as the disease escalates putting people at greater risk of blindness. Water shortages mean the recommended WHO intervention of keeping hands and faces clean to prevent trachoma spreading becomes near impossible. With tribes becoming more nomadic in the search for grazing pastures, reaching people to provide sight restorative surgery becomes an increasing challenge.

When left untreated trachoma causes immense pain as the eyelids turn inwards, making the eyelashes scratch the eyeball. This can prevent women from working, and can affect their ability to complete household tasks, having a huge impact on their family. Women will often resort to pulling out their eyelashes with tweezers, putting powder on their eyelids, or using tight headscarves to pull up the skin to restrict blinking to eradicate the pain. However none of these solutions provide a long-term cure, yet a simple operation costing �5 could save their sight.

40-year-old Lasoi from Kenya repeatedly suffered from trachoma and it eventually led to complete blindness. Lasoi was finding it a challenge to care for her seven children, so they had to drop out of school to help her. She was also struggling to do her beadwork, an essential income since her family lost their cattle due to drought. It wasn’t until Lasoi was screened by a Sightsavers-supported team visiting her village that she learned her sight could be restored by a 20-minute operation, changing her future.

In response to such a dramatic gender imbalance, Sightsavers, who works in over 30 developing countries to prevent and cure blindness, is supporting its partners in the development of programmes that work with the local cultures. By reaching more women its mission is to reduce global blindness which currently stands at 45 million people.

“It’s unimaginable to many in the developed world that a person could be last in line for medical care simply because they are a woman. But for the developing world this is the stark reality,” observes Dr Caroline Harper, Chief Executive of Sightsavers. “Blindness affects 45 million people worldwide, and unless more is done to address this, the figure is set to double over the next 25 years. That’s why it’s imperative that Sightsavers and other organisations join together to raise awareness of women and blindness during World Sight Day.”

More about why women carry the burden of blindness and what Sightsavers is doing about it can be found at http://www.sightsavers.org/women

Sightsavers International:
1. This year’s World Sight Day, now in its 11th year, takes place on 8 October 2009. World Sight Day is an annual event focusing on the problem of global blindness.
2. Sightsavers International is a registered UK charity (Registered charity numbers 207544 and SC038110) that works in more than 30 developing countries to prevent blindness, restore sight and advocate for social inclusion and equal rights for people who are blind and visually impaired. http://www.sightsavers.org
3. There are 45 million blind people in the world; 75% of all blindness can be prevented or cured.
4. Since 1950, Sightsavers has restored sight to more than 5.65 million people and treated over 100 million more.

http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/fromthefield/316852/125500684679.htm

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