Dr Jalikatu Mustapha is currently the only female ophthalmologist in Sierra Leone. She’s also head of the national eye care programme.
Throughout her career, Dr Jalikatu has seen some remarkable changes in the country. Before she began her studies, there was only one ophthalmologist working in Sierra Leone: there are now six. Yet as soon as she discovered the field and saw the impact that eye care could have on patients, she knew it was her calling.
“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Dr Jalikatu says. “People are coming that are completely blind; they look like they don’t even have the will to live. And then the next day, the transformation after just a 15-minute operation was more than anything I’d ever seen. They are completely different: they have their independence. And that feeling was what inspired me to go into ophthalmology.”
Dr Jalikatu now works at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown: the hospital is Sierra Leone’s main eye centre. It’s also a teaching hospital linked to the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, where she lectures and trains the next generation of ophthalmologists. Yet because there are only six ophthalmologists in the country, millions of people are unable to access regular eye care services. This situation is often even harder for women.
“In Sierra Leone, eye health indicators have always been worse for women than for men,” she says. “So that’s one of the areas I’m passionate about. We’re being more intentional about reaching women and targeting them with eye health campaigns.”
Women’s eye health is a concern not just in Sierra Leone, but worldwide: globally, 24 million women are blind and 163 million women have a moderate to severe visual impairment. To tackle this, many countries, including Sierra Leone, are making a concerted effort to ensure women are able to be treated.
“We’re doing free surgical or clinical outreaches aimed at women and girls, in particular, to get them to come to the hospital,” says Dr Jalikatu. “And one of the ways that Sightsavers helps is we get funding to subsidise the cost of surgery or treatments for women.”
To recognise her work, in 2020 Dr Jalikatu received an Eye Health Hero award from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). This led to a meeting with the Queen and the Countess of Wessex, a moment she describes as “one of the proudest moments in my life. It was a real honour to meet the Queen – I was nervous, but they put me at ease with a personal touch.”
Despite her successes, Dr Jalikatu has had to overcome challenges while working in a male-dominated field. “When I first became an ophthalmologist, I was young, and it took a while for people to trust that I could actually do what I’m trying to do,” she explains. “I became manager of the national eye care programme two years ago; this came with challenges because it meant working with more men at management level. You walk into a room and everyone looks at you like: ‘Why are you here?’
“It has as much to do with being a woman as it has with age. Being a young woman is the biggest disadvantage when working in a place like Sierra Leone – you have to work harder to prove yourself. It feels like you’re always trying to prove that you belong in a room, even when you’re more qualified than the other people there.”
Dr Jalikatu is hopeful that women in Sierra Leone will not share her experiences in future, thanks to steps being taken to stop discrimination. “We are changing the narrative now,” she says. “There are more young women like myself who are in professional positions and who are speaking out every day against gender bias or discrimination at work and in their personal lives. And some men are on media or social media talking about gender rights and, you know, just fighting the cause. People never used to speak about these things five or 10 years ago.”
Dr Jalikatu is still the only qualified female eye health professional in Sierra Leone today. “I don’t want to keep saying that for the next five years – that’s ridiculous,” she says. “Luckily, I interact a lot with the young doctors when I lecture in the medical school. Over the past year, I’ve met some amazing doctors: I’m really proud to see three women who are hopefully going to train.”
In the next few years, Dr Jalikatu will no longer have to describe herself as Sierra Leone’s only female ophthalmologist, a distinction she is keen to lose. But she will not stop her vital work saving the sight of patients, as well as inspiring other young women to follow in her footsteps.
“I plan to continue that strength in my own small corner,” she says. “We can start changing the narrative of men being the only ophthalmologists in the country.”