Each year on February 20, the world comes together to commemorate the United Nations’ World Day of Social Justice. It’s a day to recognize the inequities that prohibit millions of individuals from living a full life and to commit to actions that will strengthen societies for all.
This day can be a rallying point for us all. As vision advocates, this year’s theme, Overcoming Barriers and Unleashing Opportunities for Social Justice, is a relevant and strong call to action.
With more than 2.7 billion people who still need vision correction to see and be more, because they have not yet received the care they need, poor vision can be an insurmountable barrier to living life to the fullest. And with this population group at risk of being trapped in a cycle of poverty and inequality due to vision loss, there is the potential that billions will be held back from education, good employment, healthcare, and a decent standard of living. It’s clear that meeting the challenge of good vision is key to a more just world.
What does it mean for a society to be just and how can we apply the principles of social justice to create a more equitable world through good vision? In its most basic form social justice, like the fight for good vision, breaks down into four principles: Access, Equity, Participation, and Human Rights.
When it comes to good vision for all, it’s critical to focus on providing sustainable, affordable access points for all. While in many parts of the world it’s relatively easy to get an eye exam and a pair of glasses, that is not the case everywhere. New access points are needed. According to Eliminating Poor Vision in a Generation, “one million new access points can equip 90 percent of the population in need.” One way to ensure access is through human resource development and innovative entrepreneurship. In this context, local vision care entrepreneurs have the potential to provide basic refraction services and access to affordable glasses. This model of inclusive business, like the Eye Mitra model, can support livelihoods and economically empower communities. Furthermore the integration of technology can ensure that these entrepreneurs are linked to other eye care practitioners such as optometrists and ophthalmologists to provide quality care.
If we are to create a more just world through good vision, we must ensure we meet the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalized. In many parts of the world, women and girls fall into this category. According to the IAPB, “there are more females than males with vision loss in every category of vision impairment and blindness.” In fact, 55% of people with vision loss are women and girls. How then do we ensure they can see well?
Breaking down stigmas can be one key to unlocking this potential. Around the world, stigmas still affect a girl’s choice to correct her vision with glasses, as in many cultures, she is seen as defective with a reduced capacity to find a marriage partner as a result. Greater awareness, especially messaging that encourages men and boys to serve as advocates for women, is needed to tackle this cultural boundary. Thinking beyond the classroom is also essential for equitable access for girls. Current figures from UNICEF indicate that around the world, 129 million girls are still out of school. When school is often the only place for girls to receive a vision screening, these millions of girls may be missing out on a critical intervention.
If we are to ensure vision access and equity, we must create the opportunities to speak with a collective voice that encourages participation and to elevate eye care on the international development and poverty alleviation agenda.
Recently, 63 countries adopted the collective voice to request the designation of a Special Envoy on Vision. The UN Envoy would subsequently build on the momentum developed around eye health over the past three years and serve as a global advocate to lead the implementation of the 2021 UN General Assembly resolution on “Vision for Everyone.” This global request was delivered in tandem with another from more than 150 CEOs and vision sector leadership. This collective action serves as an important example of what we can accomplish when committed leaders align to create pathways for participation.
Human rights and social justice are two sides of the same coin. They can’t exist apart from each other. We believe good vision is a basic human right – seeing well improves everything in life, from an individual’s health, education and work opportunities to the sustainable development and successes of local communities and economies. Additionally, the priority and provision of good vision enables societies to achieve progress toward many of the UN Development Goals set to be met by 2030.
As we reflect on this year’s theme for World Day of Social Justice, it is clear that one of the many ways we collectively can overcome barriers and inequities is to ensure that good vision is accessible to all who need it. Only then can we unleash the potential power of this sector to contribute to a more just and equitable world by enabling the achievement of the objectives of the broader development agenda.