December 16, 2011 11:46 pm

FT Seasonal Appeal: The right to sight

Frederick Studemann on blindness in Bangladesh
Suma Shimu (left) and her sisters in Dhaka

Vision: Suma Shimu (left) and her sisters in Dhaka

Jahanara Begum knows what it means to be the parent of girls in a society where boys tend to be preferred. “Allah gave us three daughters – no problem,” she says. But less bearable were the health problems. “Two of our daughters suffering from eye problems – for that we feel the pain in our heart.”

As she speaks she glances across the living room of her family’s flat in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to her three girls sitting on a bed. The older two – Suma Shimu, aged nine, and six-year-old Lamia – both developed cataracts as small children. Suma says that “all things were hazy” and remembers not being able to see the blackboard.

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The girls were just two examples of one the biggest health challenges facing Bangladesh: preventable blindness. Despite advances in recent years, the country suffers from a lack of healthcare professionals and a backlog of 600,000 cataract cases needing treatment. For families like that of Suma and Lamia, whose father runs a T-shirt stall, the cost – about £75 per eye per child – is also a prohibitive factor.

The result is a vicious circle. A condition that often hits the poorest hardest fuels further poverty as the visually impaired lose out on educational and work opportunities. This is all avoidable, because, caught early, child cataracts can be treated.

Hamidul Haq, the father, says that the girls’ condition affected the extended family, which began to collect money for treatment. “Everyone feared that if they go blind they will never find a good bridegroom,” he says. In the end the two girls got the necessary surgery and post-operative care, partly funded by the Dhaka Urban Comprehensive Eye Care Project, an initiative backed by Sightsavers, which the FT is supporting this year in its seasonal appeal.

Two years on, the transformation is marked. Suma is now top of her class of 100 and dreams of being a doctor. After school she plays with her friends in the alleyways surrounding the family’s apartment block. In the days when she did not see well, such pleasures were off limits.

Both parents now act as informal information ambassadors for eye care in Dhaka, spreading the message that treatment is available. Jahanara says she knows the importance of tackling blindness. Both her grandmothers were visually impaired and led housebound lives as a result. Her daughters have been spared that fate.

For more information, go to www.ft.com/appeal

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