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“We put a special focus on women with disabilities and their rights.”

Sightsavers, March 2020
Women wait in line for eye screening tests.

On International Women’s Day, Syeda Asma Rashida highlights the prejudice women with disabilities face, and the work of Sightsavers’ Right to Health project.

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.

Why the Right to Health project is so important

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.

A woman smiles and holds one hand over her eye after successful cataract surgery.

About Right to Health

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
Hasina has her eyes checked at a screening camp held for the Bihari minority community in Bangladesh.

Why aren’t women showing up at eye camps?

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.

“If a person comes to the eye camp they can lose one day's wages.”

Asma talking to the family of Shamima, a patient with disabilties.
Asma (far left) visits cataract patient Shamima (pictured with her daughter on her lap) who has speech and hearing disabilities.

Meeting and learning from Shamima

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.

A young woman smiles as she holds a baby.

The importance of accessible eye health

It is hard for anyone to lose their vision, but for Shamima, who has hearing and speech disabilities, it was even more difficult.

Read Shamima's story
women and girls stand at the screening camp.
Women and girls waiting in line to be seen at an eye screening camp.

A special programme for International Women’s Day

For International Women’s Day this year we have an exciting programme organised. We will run targeted eye camps in four districts, exclusively for women. One will only target women with disabilities, and another will focus on adolescent girls. After the eye camps we will run a seminar, led by the government, and will share our findings and best practice on targeting marginalised women so that other government bodies can learn from what we are doing.

Women’s lives are improving, but for a secure future, we need to think about security for everybody and especially for women. In Bangladesh, many more women are working compared to 15 years ago, but we need to ensure security in the workplace, and also when travelling to and from work. Sexual harassment is common in the workplace; it’s a common topic of conversation among my friends: they face discrimination and exploitation and aren’t being promoted though they ought to be. Our society is a male-dominated society.

We need to change the men’s perspective; men also should advocate to establish the rights of women. If those who head society don’t change it is difficult to foresee any drastic positive change overall.

As a mother of two daughters, I make sure they know that they are equally important and I also encourage them to respect other women. I raise them in such a way that they don’t have any sort of discrimination in their mind or feel any sort of inferiority so they are very vocal and I am so proud of them. I think in future they will contribute to ensure equality in our society. I hope they will.

My daughters say: “Mama, we feel so proud of you because you always give emphasis to your work and take good care of us as well”. I never compromise my work but it can cause tension balancing work and family life. I believe that women are equal contributors in society.

It won’t be easy, but we will see the world we dream of in the future.

“Women’s lives are improving, but for a secure future, we need to think about security for everybody and especially for women.”

 

Author


Asma Rashid smilingSyeda Asma Rashida
Asma is senior programme officer based in Sightsavers’ Bangladesh office.

“Sometimes we do double or triple the amount of work compared to men, but it is not properly accounted or acknowledged in our society.”

All professional images ©Sightsavers/Reza Shahriar Rahman

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