At Sightsavers in Bangladesh, we usually celebrate International Women’s Day in partnership with all of the people we work with here – women and men, our donors and the government ministries (for example the Departments of Women’s Affairs and Social Services).
As International Women’s Day was established to protect the rights of women, we celebrate this important day jointly with all of the women of Bangladesh, however we put a special focus on women with disabilities and their rights.
In Bangladesh, we have the Rights and Protection Act of Persons with Disabilities 2013, which should afford some protection, however implementation of the law is very low. If you compare men with disabilities and women with disabilities, there is lots of additional discrimination that women with disabilities face.
The Right to Health project, funded by the UK government through UK Aid Match, is a unique programme piloting in Bangladesh. With this project we are trying to spotlight the most marginalised people in our communities, who often miss out.
Among the many marginalised groups are ethnic minorities and women – especially widows – but even more marginalised are people with disabilities, especially women with disabilities, and women-headed families, whose numbers are increasing.
On International Women’s Day, I want to highlight the progress we are making through the three-year project, as we reach the halfway mark, because it is deliberately focusing on increasing the number of women coming to our eye health facilities.
The Right to Health programme focuses on restoring and protecting people’s sight, and ensuring health services are accessible for people with disabilities and other marginalised groups.More on the programme
Most women are reluctant to attend the eye health camp because they are very poor and don’t have any decision-making power in the family. If they come, they need someone to accompany them to the eye facility – so they don’t attend at all. Often they have to travel at least 5-10 kilometres, and the public transportation is costly and not very accessible.
This is one of the seemingly small problems we had to find a solution to. Often, if a person comes to the eye camp they can lose one day’s wages and as it’s not ‘life and death’, they put it off for one day, and then another.
To target these people, we organise the camps at a local level in ‘upazillas’ (administrative districts) along with collaborative partners. They may only be attended by 50 or 60 people; it’s a small number, but we try to reach them in the easiest way so they can access eye health facilities. Accessibility is a challenge and it can be very expensive, so if people have a severe disability and need support we can provide this for them. The project particularly focuses on cataracts, but if they have other eye problems we provide the medicines and also spectacles free of cost, unlike at our regular eye camps.
Through seemingly small initiatives we are encouraging women with disabilities to attend, and are finding that we now have some solid numbers attending.
We held our last targeted outreach camp in Narshingdi, in collaboration with Sheba Protibondhi Nari Porishod (a local organisation working with people with disabilities). Because of our partnership with Sheba Protibondhi Nari Porishod, the majority of attendees – about 40 – were women with disabilities.
We recommend this approach if you want to increase the participation of women with disabilities in your activities.
The Right to Health project is an opportunity to learn, as we try to work with people like Shamima.
For a young woman like Shamima, with speech and hearing disabilities, it is difficult for her to explain her problems she is facing, so without a targeted specialist approach she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to have her cataracts operated on.
Her sister heard about the targeted eye camp for women with disabilities through a ‘miking’ activity (where information is relayed by a microphone on a moving vehicle), so she knew she had to bring her sister. The doctor identified that Shamima had cataracts and needed surgery. Initially Shamima did not want to go because she was worried about being alone – usually only the patient can stay in the hospital. Fortunately, through the Right to Health project, two family members could accompany her free of charge. So she went happily for the operation and she’s now able to see properly.
Although we work hard to reach people with disabilities, only one or two people with disabilities would attend our regular eye camps, and most of the time we did not have data on these people. But with this project we have been able to support women like Shamima and have now evidence of them.
On a personal level I feel really great when young women like Shamima are able to see again, not only for the human impact, but also because we hope to encourage this more targeted approach by sharing our learnings from the Right to Health project with other organisations running similar eye health projects in Bangladesh. Sightsavers is creating evidence that other organisations can learn from and bring to scale.