By Parhyse May, Program Officer at The Fred Hollows Foundation
In Bangladesh, it is estimated that women are up to twice as likely to be blind than men1. Despite women over 40 representing the greatest proportion of females who are blind, the proportion of them that access treatment decreases with age. Women who live in rural areas or are part of marginalised groups are particularly affected.
This July, I had the privilege of travelling to Bangladesh with our Senior Gender Advisor to assist the in-country team in incorporating more gender sensitive practices into their programming.
Accompanied by Aminur Rahman, The Foundation’s Senior Project Officer in Bangladesh, our first port of call was a town called Jessore in the country’s southwest. Here, we visited a maternal and child health (MCH) clinic run by a local NGO named Pariabar Kollyan Samity (PKS). We partner with PKS to deliver our ‘Restoring Vision to Marginalised Women and Children in Rural Bangladesh’ project.
Supported by the Australian Government through the Australian NGO Cooperation Program (ANCP), this innovative project is integrating eye health services into MCH clinics for the first time in Bangladesh. These MCH clinics see women from diverse age groups, backgrounds and locations – many of whom are from rural areas or marginalised groups. The women and children visiting these clinics are often accompanied by older family members, who are particularly at risk of eye health issues.
Harnessing PKS’ large female client flow and reputation for providing quality, affordable services, we are able to provide much needed eye health services to women who would otherwise miss out. Aminur explained to me how fortunate he feels to be able to manage this project.
“I enjoy working with people in the community. Women and children depend on MCH clinics for basic health needs. It is our privilege to make them more aware of eye health issues in a place where they feel comfortable.”
I saw what Aminur was talking about in the Jessore PKS clinic. It was full of women and children of all ages and the clinic’s triage nurse was busy conducting eye examinations. I soon met an elderly patient named Monowara. She sat in the waiting room with a kind smile on her face. I immediately noticed opacity in her eyes – a tell-tale sign of cataracts.
Monowara told us that she had received cataract surgery at a government hospital thirteen years ago. The surgery was unsuccessful and she never went back, resigning herself to a life of poor vision.
Monowara told us proudly that she had visited the clinic because her daughter Munni had just given birth to a beautiful baby girl. While there, Monawara found that eye health had been integrated into the clinic’s services.
The clinic’s triage nurse, who had been trained in basic eye care by The Foundation, noticed Monawara’s cataracts and informed her that the clinic would soon have a fully functioning operating theatre. If Monawara wanted, her cataract surgery could be fixed.
Monowara and her family are exactly the kind of people this project aims to reach, and Aminur said it was “very exciting,” to witness the project’s vision coming to life first-hand. “That was a special opportunity for us to see three generations in one hospital, and to see them receive eye health services as well as MCH services.”
Less than six months later, I am happy to report that the clinic’s operating theatre is up and running, with 108 people having received sight-saving surgery thus far. More people are receiving eye health services at the clinic than MCH services, which is a huge feat considering the number of women and children that visit the clinic. Thanks to ANCP and our in-country partners, many people like Monowara will be able to lift themselves out of darkness and fully enjoy the gift of sight – something they may not have ever thought possible.
Parhyse May is an early career International Public Health professional who is interested in matters of health equity, particularly in the context of gender. After studying a Bachelor of Science (Immunobiology) and a Master of International Public Health at the University of Sydney, Parhyse worked as a Research Assistant at the Kids Research Institute of the Children’s Hospital at Westmead while also volunteering as a Project Officer for the Bangladesh Cerebral Palsy Register (an initiative of CSF Global). Since July 2016, Parhyse has worked as a Program Officer at The Fred Hollows Foundation headquarters in Sydney. She works closely with The Foundation’s in-country staff around the globe to assist in developing their projects and managing funds from DFAT and other institutional donors.
Australia is proud to partner with The Fred Hollows Foundation through the ANCP. This unique Australian Aid program has supported The Foundation’s community-based eye health projects since 1997.
- Dineen BP, Bourne RRA, Ali SM, Huq DMN, Johnson GJ. Prevalence and causes of blindness and visual impairment in Bangladeshi adults: results of the National Blindness and Low Vision Survey of Bangladesh. The British Journal of Ophthalmology. 2003;87(7):820-828.