On Monday 3 November, I was a witness on behalf of Vision 2020 Australia to the public hearing to the Joint Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade inquiry into the human rights issues facing women and girls in the Indian Ocean-Asia Pacific region.
The public hearing was attended by a number of representatives from the not-for-profit international aid and development sector, including Rachel Wallbridge from CBM Australia.
The inquiry was timely. As the Australian Government continues to tweak its new aid program and instils a focus on the rights of women and girls in the region, we are reminded of the alarming inequality that women face, particularly women living with a disability such as vision impairment and blindness.
The vast majority of women and girls in our region face a range of barriers to equal participation to men in all aspects of lifeâ”€social, economic and lifestyle. The barriers stem from cultural, geographical, and gender-role factors such as inequality in the home and workplace, lack of ownership over money, and a lack of access to education and health services.
A woman or a girl living with a disability, such as vision impairment and blindness, face further barriers than women or girls without a disability. For example, a lack of accessible infrastructure, transport and education is further compounded by community and employer perceptions that women with a disability are unable to work and contribute to society. This then has economic consequences for the individual, her family and her community.
Shockingly, women and girls living with a disability are two to three times more likely to be physically or sexually abused than women or girls without a disability.
Fortunately though, 80 per cent of women and girls who are blind or vision impaired don’t have to be â”€ their vision loss is preventable or can be treated, and their lives can be transformed. The barriers to full participation can be removed, and reliance on other female family members for care can be reduced. And for women and girls whose vision loss is permanent, eye health and vision care programs provide rehabilitation services and support networks to ensure equality in social, economic and lifestyle opportunities.
There is substantial untapped potential held by women and women with a disability, which not only has an inclusive flow on effect for other women, but also has the potential to greatly contribute to the economic growth of a whole community. Through reducing the gender gap by increasing economic opportunity and allowing women’s voices to be heard in society, the cycle of poverty can effectively be broken.
Avoidable blindness and disability are barriers for women and girls in our region. We can address and remove these barriers, and improve the lives of hundreds of thousands of our closest neighbours.