A couple of weeks from now, on March 8, the world will focus on the accomplishments of women and the challenges they face – especially in low-income countries. International Women’s Day is observed by the United Nations and is designated as a national holiday in many countries. Daniel Franklin, Operation Eyesight’s Program Manager for Community Eye Health in India, has spent much of his career as a researcher and observer of human behaviour. His recent insights about the role of women in India are well timed. Here is the first of a two-part post that Daniel has prepared.
In India and most parts of the developing world, men are expected to play the role of bread winners, while women attend to household chores and raise children. I worked in northern India for more than 17 years where I found this mindset quite prevalent.
It was quite natural for the organizations where I worked to recruit only men for community eye health positions. These are considered to be tough, energy-sapping jobs that require long distances to be covered on foot or bicycle through mountainous or jungle terrain. Also, interacting successfully with village elders and local government officials was believed to be beyond what any woman could do. But I believed the contrary.
Yes, there are physical and political challenges, but I always believed that women could deliver the same results or even better. My observation is that women can be more focused, more vocal and better able to empathize with people suffering from visual impairment.
Many years passed by before I got an opportunity to put my theory into practice. I joined Operation Eyesight in 2009, when it was in the process of launching a hospital-based community eye health project in Tamil Nadu, one of the southern states of India. I convinced my colleagues and our hospital partner to recruit only women community health workers for the project. We needed 15 such workers who lived in the geographic area of the project. They would be responsible for conducting door-to-door survey, holding health awareness sessions and organizing screening programs, among other things.
I wondered, would it be an easy task to recruit health workers from remote tribal villages who would shoulder these responsibilities? However, recruitment activities and efforts made by the Project Coordinator who went from village to village did result in a very high number of women applying for the positions. I was surprised and also proud of the fact that we interviewed as many as 50 women for the 15 positions.
All of this was quite new. I was a bit nervous about the willingness of these new employees to leave their homes and attend training sessions over the course of 25 days. But not only did they attend the full training program, they also displayed understanding and commitment to the cause of avoidable blindness. Each one seemed to eagerly acquire knowledge and skills related to door-to-door surveys, visual acuity assessments, identification of blinding conditions and communication methods to build awareness about eye health. But what would happen when they found themselves on the job, interacting with their neighbours?
All was not hunky dory. After training, the community workers returned to their neighbourhoods and proceeded to survey the people. They faced many hardships when they knocked on the doors to interview the residents. Some female workers were turned away rudely by people fearing they could be tricksters or thieves. Some were treated as beggars and a few were chased away by barking dogs.
Return two weeks from now, March 9, the day after International Women’s Day, to learn how the low-income women of Tamil Nadu fared in their new jobs.