Gender and health equity will only come with universal access to eye health – here's why

Good eye health is essential for women's quality of life and more but they represent two-thirds of those who are blind and visually impaired.

Women face challenges accessing eye health services. Credit: nrd on Unsplash
Women face challenges accessing eye health services. Credit: nrd on Unsplash


Good eye health cannot be overstated, wherever you are. But despite being a critical part of a person's well-being, women face distinct challenges that hinder their access to essential eye health services. Worldwide, pervasive disparities prevent women from receiving timely and adequate eye care.

Why women's eye health matters

Good vision is essential for women's quality of life and their ability to work, learn and care for their families. Problems with vision can affect women of any age but they become more common as women get older. A staggering statistic reveals that nearly two-thirds of the visually impaired across the globe are women.

This disparity is rooted in multi-faceted causes, including the longevity of women, exposing them to age-related eye ailments such as cataracts, age-related macular degeneration and glaucoma.

For instance, a national survey conducted in Nigeria found that the rate of mild to moderate distance vision impairment in women was about 30% higher than in men. Additionally, global data indicates that women with moderate to severe distance vision impairment surpass men by roughly 7%, even when age differences are accounted for.

Intersectional challenges: Sociocultural, economic and healthcare disparities

Women's eye health is an often underestimated yet critical global health challenge, demanding urgent attention and concerted efforts worldwide. Despite strides in healthcare, disparities persist, leaving women disproportionately affected by various eye-related conditions and obstacles in accessing adequate care.

Embedded within traditional and discriminatory gender roles, women often bear the primary responsibility for caregiving, often at the expense of their own health, including eye care. Societal norms and expectations limit their autonomy to seek medical attention independently. This, compounded by financial constraints due to lower incomes and the gender pay gap, creates formidable barriers making eye examinations, treatments and corrective eyewear financially unattainable for many women.

Image depicting that women and girls represent 55% of the global vision loss burden.

Women's eye health is an often underestimated yet critical global health challenge, demanding urgent attention and concerted efforts worldwide.
Image: International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness

Challenges women face in accessing eye care

Despite the importance of good eye health, many women face barriers to accessing eye care, including a lack of awareness of the need for eye exams, the cost of care, transportation difficulties, and competing demands on their time.

Women living in rural or remote areas may face additional challenges accessing eye care services. In some cases, women may not have control over their own healthcare decisions, relying on male family members to seek medical help on their behalf.

In addition to these general barriers, women face specific challenges regarding eye health. For example, hormonal changes during pregnancy and menopause can affect women's vision, and some medications commonly used by women (such as oral contraceptives and hormone replacement therapy) can also affect eye health. Women who wear makeup may be at higher risk of eye infections or irritation, especially with improper removal.

Prevalence of vision loss (age-standardized) for each cause, by gender (adults 50+), blindness and moderate to severe vision impairment.

Prevalence of vision loss (age-standardized) for each cause, by gender (adults 50+), blindness and moderate to severe vision impairment.
Image: International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness

Addressing the gender gap in eye care access

Addressing gender disparities in eye health requires a multi-faceted approach involving governments, healthcare providers, non-governmental organizations and civil society. The following strategies can help bridge the gap and promote gender equity in eye health globally:

1. Policy reforms

Initiating policy changes at national and international levels is crucial in addressing the gender disparities in eye care. Governments and global health organizations must prioritize eye health as an integral part of women's healthcare. That involves advocating for policies that ensure affordable and accessible eye care services for women, including subsidized or free eye examinations and treatments.

Policies promoting gender equality in healthcare settings, such as enforcing anti-discrimination measures and encouraging gender-sensitive training for healthcare professionals, are imperative.

2. Awareness campaigns

Launching targeted awareness campaigns tailored to women from diverse backgrounds is essential in fostering a culture of proactive eye care. Collaborating with community leaders, educational institutions and healthcare providers can amplify the reach of these campaigns, educating women about the importance of regular eye check-ups, early detection of eye conditions and maintaining good eye health practices.

Emphasising the correlation between overall and eye health can encourage women to prioritize their vision care.

3. Strengthening healthcare systems

Transforming healthcare systems to be more inclusive and responsive to women's needs is pivotal. This involves ensuring that eye care services are integrated into primary healthcare facilities and that these services are equipped to address women's unique eye health concerns.

Training healthcare professionals to recognize and address gender-specific issues related to eye health, such as hormonal changes impacting vision, can significantly improve the quality of care provided to women.

4. Community engagement and empowerment

Engaging communities and empowering women to take charge of their eye health can yield lasting impacts. Establishing community-based eye care programmes, particularly in underserved areas, can bring eye care services closer to women who face geographical or cultural barriers.

Moreover, fostering women's empowerment through education and economic opportunities enhances their access to eye care and elevates their overall health status and autonomy.

5. Research and data collection

Research examining the intersectionality of gender and eye health is crucial. Collecting gender-disaggregated data on eye conditions, access to eye care and treatment outcomes can uncover disparities and inform evidence-based interventions.

Investing in research focused on understanding how gender influences eye health and access to care is essential for developing targeted solutions.

Achieving universal healthcare coverage and sustainable development goals means advancing gender equity in eye health. It involves addressing the unique challenges women face in accessing eye care to improve health outcomes and promote gender equality, building more inclusive societies.

Through collaborative efforts and targeted interventions, we can bridge the gap and ensure that all individuals, regardless of gender, access quality eye care services.

Written by

Dr. Princess Ifeoma Ike, Public Health Optometrist; CEO Princess Vision Eye Clinic Limited Abuja, Nigeria, as well as Global Shaper, Abuja Hub, and Member of the World Economic Forum's Expert Network on Global Health, Future of Healthcare, and Women's Health.


This article was originally published by the World Economic Forum on 24 May 2024.