How Does Gender Impact Development Work?
Written by Gurleen Grewal
In celebration of this year’s International Women’s Day, BCCIC got together with one of its member organizations, Seva Canada, to talk about why they find value in focusing on gender in development work. With the mission of restoring sight and preventing blindness in developing countries, Seva Canada, offers many people with treatable forms of blindness a second lease on life. They bring eye screening clinics to marginalized, rural communities, perform low-cost and high-quality surgeries, and provide access to eyeglasses and eye-care medicine. For those at Seva, giving one person their sight back, means giving two people their lives back.
When Seva Canada started in 1982, they collected data on the success of their programs just like other organizations around the world with similar goals. They counted the number of eyes they treated, and left it at that. But, in 2001, one of Seva’s board members, Dr. Paul Courtright, worked with colleagues to publish the finding that 2/3 of the world’s blind were women and girls. This statistic was not due to any biological difference. It was not the case that women and girls were more likely to become blind. The problem was, and remains, that women and girls are less likely to receive the eye care that they need for preventable and treatable forms of blindness. Responding to this problem, one of the actions Seva undertakes is to disaggregate data measuring the success of each of their programs. This means counting not only the number of eyes treated, but also looking at whose eyes are treated.
After committing to data disaggregation, Seva Canada spotted gender inequities in their own programs: they found that women and girls with preventable or treatable blindness used their eye care services less than men and boys did. Demonstrating a willingness to critique and rejig their programs, Seva continues to ask the hard question of how women and girls can overcome socioeconomic barriers to access and use the services they need. In some instances, this means hosting an eye screening clinic at one place, and then returning to that same place again and again. At the first and second screenings, Seva often encounters a larger number of men and boys in need of eye care. While later screenings at the same site begin to draw out women and girls who also need eye care, but whose health is not deemed as urgent a priority as that of men and boys. Seva’s persistence allows them to work around the issue of women and girls being considered less valuable, and therefore less eligible to receive eye care, than men and boys.
By continually devoting resources to disaggregating data, and discovering gender-specific barriers that prevent women and girls from using their eye care services, Seva Canada sits on the brink of constant innovation. They never assume that because some of the women and girls in a community came for screenings or surgeries that all of the women and girls who needed help got it. Integrating the goal of reducing gender inequities into their programs, Seva finds that many of the strategies that lead to an increase in the use of their eye care services by women and girls, do the same for men and boys. This outcome dispels the myth that focusing on gender equity in development work disadvantages men and boys.
To build relationships within communities and empower them with the tools to someday sustain their eye care services independently, Seva Canada works with women, women’s groups, and their networks. These groups are often uniquely placed to understand and challenge the local, context-specific gender barriers that prevent women and girls from using eye care services. After being trained to identify basic eye conditions and diseases, Seva’s community partners, referred to as Key Informants, use their knowledge of local values and anxieties to connect women and girls with preventable or treatable blindness to services. In the village of Malagasy, in rural Madagascar, Florette Ravonimalaca, works to farm rice and legumes, while acting as a Key Informant in her community. Knowing that for many people the idea of going to a screening sparks fear rather than hope, Florette asks those who have been to screenings to stand by her in “church services and city council meetings,” so that they can “discredit the myths around eye screenings,” share success stories, and increase the use of services.
Seva Canada’s dedication to strengthening trust by connecting with community partners, and coming back to rural sites for multiple screenings, is crucial to ensuring that the people in need of eye care feel safe and reassured in reaching out. The statistic from Seva’s 2001 study found that 2/3 of the world’s blind were women and girls. This was simply because they were less likely to receive eye care than men and boys. Today, as a result of the actions Seva took to address gender inequity, there has been a 10% decrease in the service disparity for women. In other words, the number of women suffering from treatable blindness decreased by 10%. Still, Seva acknowledges that there is a great deal of work to do. While their interventions have helped significantly combat the gender-specific barriers that women face, the same difference has not yet been observed for girls. As children, girls cannot advocate for themselves, so getting their families to seek and agree to treatment remains a challenge.
The decision to focus on the issue of gender inequity in the treatment of blindness is one that has led Seva Canada to model standards for creating, implementing, and monitoring eye-care programs in developing countries. As Executive Director, Penny Lyons, emphasizes, studying the programs you make is essential to making them better. It is only through rigorous research and evaluation efforts that Seva identified gender inequities in the access to and use of their programs. Always ready to share their knowledge with like-minded organizations, Seva amplifies the impact of their research into gender inequity by reporting results in clear language, and distributing them to diverse audiences who may benefit from their teachings. Ever optimistic, and committed to the cause of restoring sight and preventing blindness, Seva Canada continues to advocate for the equal right to sight. They are proof that a focus on gender in development work is well worth the effort.