Female ophthalmologists from across the Middle East work with simulation equipment during an Orbis Flying Eye Hospital training prroject in Doha, Qatar

SDG 5: Advancing gender equality through eye care access and training

Gender equality is a fundamental human right, enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. Although there has been progress in advancing women’s rights as part of attaining gender equality, there is still a long way to go to achieve full equality of rights and opportunities.

United Nation's Sustainable Development Goals graphic
There's still a long way to go to achieve full gender equality.

There is still a long way to go to achieve full equality of rights and opportunities for women and girls. Worldwide, women continue to earn 23% less than men, setting them up for a lifetime of income inequality and greater likelihood of retiring into poverty. In healthcare, women and girls in many societies are often disadvantaged by discrimination rooted in sociocultural factors.

Orbis International recognizes that blindness and vision loss are gendered issues – and a burden that women and girls disproportionately bear. They have worse access to eye health services and are 12% more likely to have sight loss than men. Global figures indicate that 55% of those living with vision loss are women and girls, translating to an additional 112 million people.

By removing barriers to women and girls accessing eye health services and increasing the number of women working in the field, Orbis and our partners are demonstrating a strong commitment to meeting the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 5 to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls.   

Gender-Specific Barriers in Eye Care

Women and girls face several gender-specific barriers in accessing quality eye care. Men and boys often benefit first from limited family finances, while women are burdened with household and childcare responsibilities, which limits their ability to prioritize their own needs. Women have fewer educational opportunities and lower literacy rates, which impedes their ability to know how or where to access necessary care. Additionally, women often have fewer options for travel than men and are more vulnerable to unsafe situations away from home; older women may require assistance, which poor families cannot provide. 

The lack of women eye health care providers is another barrier as women may be reluctant to visit male practitioners due to cultural or other reasons.  Globally, women represent only 25-30% of ophthalmologists and 25-45% of professionals-in-training. Despite an increasing number of surveys on ophthalmic human resources in low- and middle-income countries, the lack of gender-disaggregated data hinders accurate assessment of the gender balance in these settings.

Growing the Number of Women Working in Eye Health

With our partners, Orbis is expanding the number of women in the eye health workforce by providing training and support. This has dual benefits of closing the gender gap and improving access to treatment as women in many cultures are more likely to seek care from women providers. 

In 2021, we worked with Women In Ophthalmology and Seva Foundation to create “Women Leaders in Eye Health” (WLEH), a global virtual space and webinar series for women eye professionals to come together and strengthen their leadership. Global data collected during WLEH from 2021 to 2023 found that women cite cultural gender bias (25% avg.), education levels (18.5% avg.), leadership skills (54.25% avg.), and networking (52% avg.) as impacting promotion to leadership roles.

In 2022, we led a unique training project designed specifically to empower women eye care professionals living in conflict-affected areas. The project brought together ophthalmologists and nurses from Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen on our Flying Eye Hospital, a fully accredited ophthalmic teaching hospital on board an aircraft. Guided by our clinical team and an all-women group of volunteer medical experts, the participants worked with cutting-edge simulation devices, such as virtual reality, artificial eyes, and life-like manikins, to develop the skills to fight avoidable causes of vision loss. The complex surgical and nursing techniques they honed served to enhance their knowledge and support their work with patients.  

Through Cybersight, Orbis’s award-winning telemedicine and e-learning platform, we provide training and education tools to medical professionals around the world. In a recent survey of Cybersight users, 30% of women respondents said that they experience challenges that men do not in accessing eye healthcare training. Cybersight helps women eye care professionals overcome those challenges by providing affordable, convenient ways to advance their career while continuing to fulfill their multiple roles and caregiving responsibilities.   

The platform is accessible from anywhere, at any time, using a laptop, tablet, or mobile phone. Cybersight’s advanced features, including long-distance mentoring and an artificial intelligence (AI) diagnostic tool, are available for free for eye care professionals in low- and-middle-income countries. 

Cybersight has been a valuable resource for Dr. Hannah Prasanth, a general ophthalmologist based in Puducherry, India. When she finished her post-graduate studies, she wanted to pursue a fellowship, but explained that, with two small children, it would have been difficult. Ultimately, she opted for online learning via Cybersight so she could learn when she had free time.

Headshot of Dr. Hannah Prasanth, an ophthalmologist from Puducherry, India

Creating Care and Career Opportunities for Women Through Vision Centers

Across India and Bangladesh, Orbis is known for our vision centers, which ensure that remote and/or rural communities can access quality eye care close to home. This is a huge benefit, especially for women lacking financial resources or who are unable to travel long distances on their own to seek care for themselves or their children.  

In recent years, Orbis has expanded on our vision center model by forming Women-led Green Vision Centers. Here, Orbis trains women who eventually form the management teams that run the facilities, empowering women in the community through job creation and increasing their financial independence. An added benefit of having women staff members is that many women in rural communities are more likely to seek eye care for themselves and their children when it is administered by other women. These green centers also run on solar power, reducing carbon impact and ensuring uninterrupted, quality eye care, regardless of access to electricity. 

Orbis has established 37 vision centers and counting in Bangladesh, each one serving around 100,000 people; five of these are Women-led Green Vision Centers. In India, Orbis has helped create 115 vision centers, 33 of which are green centers, with 12 being led by women. This is a game-changer for women and girls’ access to eye care. Orbis continues to work with our partners to increase the number of women-led centers across both countries.

A female patient receives an eye test from Nurun Nahar Aktar at Char Alexander Women-led Green Vision Center in Bangladesh

Eliminating Trachoma: a Leading Cause of Vision Loss in Women

A mother and her three children from the rural Gurage Zone, Ethiopia, pictured at home after receiving treatment for trachoma

Asma and her children took part in a community trachoma screening in Gurage Zone, Ethiopia. Two of her daughters (middle-right), Neima, 3, and Sitra, 6, were diagnosed with active trachoma symptoms and received treatment.

In 2023, Orbis administered its 100-millionth dose of trachoma-fighting antibiotics in Ethiopia. Due to their role as caretakers of children, who are the most common carriers of active trachoma infection, women are more likely to suffer from repeated bouts of disease. These recurrent infections can lead to trichiasis, a painful condition in which scarring causes the eyelid to turn in on itself and the eyelashes to scratch the eye, resulting in permanent vision loss without timely treatment. Nearly three quarters of people with trichiasis are women. 

Orbis is proud to help more women maintain healthy sight as we contribute to ongoing efforts to eliminate trachoma by 2030, in line with World Health Organization goals.

If you would like to learn more about how our work supports the SDGs, or are interested in funding any of the programs mentioned on this page, please email [email protected].

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