Women in developing countries face massive barriers in accessing health care due to cultural restrictions, geographical limitations, and discrimination because of their gender. One of the most inspirational groups of women I've met during my travels - women who are breaking through these barriers everyday - are the female health workers of Asia. To mark International Women's Day 2013, I wanted to share with you the some of these women's stories.
Among the 100,000 female health workers in Pakistan, known locally as "Lady Health Workers" is Sarwar Kausar. After completing her school studies, Sarwar decided to become a health worker to help the people in her village. In her role, Sarwar has taken Primary Eye Care training with international development organisation, Sightsavers, (supported by Standard Chartered and Irish Aid), enabling her to diagnose and refer eye patients to hospitals.
Training women to help educate and treat other women appears to be one of the most effective ways of delivering eye care in many communities. In countries like Pakistan where direct interaction between women and men is not encouraged in a number of areas, it can be difficult for women to consult with male health workers as they must be accompanied by a male family member. However, with the men often out at work all day, opportunities for women to meet with health workers are limited. Using women in this role has helped thousands upon thousands of Pakistani women to make use of eye care and other health services.
Sarwar tells us she has come across many patients with trachoma, the leading cause of preventable blindness, where the eyelashes turn inward, scratching the eye and leading to the potentially blinding trichiasis. Sarwar has learnt the importance of good hygiene and a clean environment to prevent disease and eye infections common to this community such as, cataract, conjunctivitis, and trachoma and has been able to pass this valuable knowledge on to her community.
Another group of lady health workers can be found in Dharavi, in the heart of Mumbai. Dharavi's labyrinth of narrow streets is full of 'cottage industries' (small businesses run from peoples' homes) with people busy in workshops making everything from electrical goods to clothes, jewellery and leather. Dharavi was made famous by the blockbuster Slumdog Millionaire and is home to over one million of the world's poorest people.
The lady health workers in Dharavi are a group of 30 women who go door-to-door in the slum community where they live, promoting free eye care services and providing people with free glasses. The simple act of giving people access to these services helps to safeguard the livelihood of many cottage industry workers, who rely on their vision for near-sighted work such as needle work and jewellery making. These lady health workers are playing a vital role in tackling blindness among the hard-to-reach slum communities. Without these workers we'd struggle to reach those in desperate need of eye care.
Workers like Hirabai Bayle, who shares her home with her mother, her teenage son and four sisters in the heart of the Dharavi slum. Hirabai supports herself and her son by selling bananas on the roadside, and stitching gloves at a workshop nearby. Hirabai had begun to experience problems with her near-sight five years previously and it was beginning to affect her work. However, with a monthly income of just £13 she could not afford to have an eye examination let alone buy a pair of glasses.
Thankfully a lady health worker, 20-year-old Jeba Ansari, visited Hirabai at her home. Using an eye chart, Jeba was able to determine that Hirabai was long-sighted and refer her to one of Sightsavers' eye screenings taking place in her community. There she had her eyes examined by a trained optometrist, and was prescribed a free pair of glasses.
There are 39 million blind people in the world, 90 per cent of whom live in developing countries. These lady health workers are an incredible asset in helping Sightsavers and our partners to cure and prevent avoidable blindness by delivering eye health care to some of the hardest to reach people.
This 8 March, on International Women's Day, I ask you this: Take a moment to think about these wonderful women and the millions of other women across the world who dedicate their lives to reaching out to their neighbours and providing help to those who need it. However big or small their contribution may seem, these women are invaluable to our communities and we should celebrate them.