Pakistan’s women sight better careers, eye health

In South Asia, one foundation is helping women break down the cultural barriers to education, helping them take aim at avoidable blindness

In South Asia, where education for girls can be limited by poverty, lack of opportunity and cultural practices, Iqra Liaqat is breaking the mould – helping to advance women in work and take aim at avoidable blindness.

Liaqat moved 1,800km from a small village in India’s northern state of Rajasthan, where she says there is ‘no education for girls’, to learn ophthalmology (the study of eyes) in Lahore, Pakistan.

“Being able to help people see again is a very powerful thing,” said the fourth year student. “It’s also a very satisfying career.”

Keen to make the grade, Liaqat could one day help the 1.6 million sightless people in Pakistan, around two-thirds of whom are women.

The move was made possible in part by the opening of a women’s hostel attached to the College of Ophthalmology and Allied Vision Sciences at the city’s Mayo Hospital. The hostel removes some of the cultural barriers that can stand in the way of young women receiving tertiary education, by allowing them to walk directly to their tutorials within the campus grounds.

“Our parents want us to have a bright future; they don’t want us to experience the same hardships and difficulties they had,” said Liaquat. “Women are by no means equal to men in Pakistan. A woman the age of 22 is seen as ‘getting on’, but luckily my parents were determined for me to have a career and a satisfying job before I get married, and just as importantly, afterwards as well.”

The hostel is one part of the ongoing efforts of the Australia-based Fred Hollows Foundation, in partnership with the Australian and Pakistani governments, to reduce the incidence of avoidable blindness in the country.

After their training, the young women graduates are expected to become invaluable assets to their communities. It is important that they do: Pakistan suffers an acute shortage of eye care specialists, with just 300 optometrists and one ophthalmologist per 82,000 people. Women in particular face a challenge in finding appropriate eye healthcare, in part due to cultural practices limiting their ability to travel and a paucity of qualified female health workers.

The country also has some 45,000 cases of childhood blindness. Pakistan ranks fourth globally for the number of pre-term births, leading to a high number of cases of ‘retinopathy of prematurity’ – a retina disease that can cause blindness in babies and children.

These numbers and their gender-biased impact is why the Fred Hollows Foundation sees a focus on programmes targeting women as critical to the efforts to end avoidable blindness in Pakistan, where it has operated since 1997.

“Our job is to build the capacity of the government in the countries in which we work to deliver eye healthcare to their populations,” said Brian Doolan, the foundation’s CEO. “We train a number of female health workers who go back into their villages and districts to do screenings, deliver treatment and provide referrals.”

Since it entered the country the foundation and its partners claim to have almost halved the blindness rate in Pakistan, from 1.78 per cent to 0.9 per cent of the population. This has been achieved through a mix of health screenings, training for surgeons, developing a network of community health workers and improving healthcare infrastructure.

“Our goal is to end avoidable blindness,” said Doolan. “An additional element in Pakistan, as in many other countries, is the challenge of gender. The fact is all throughout the world the majority of people living with avoidable blindness are women.”

Photo credit: the Fred Hollows Foundation