Break the Bias: Paving The Way for Women in Healthcare

Sightsavers staff, Asma, at the Sightsavers Dhaka office, Bangladesh. © Reza Shahriar Rahman

All around the world, women and girls are stepping up to break the bias, striving to achieve gender equality.

On March 8th, the world celebrates International Women’s Day following the theme of Break the Bias, challenging participants to image a gender equal world that is free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination.

These three women stepped up to break the bias in the healthcare industry, showcasing that women can thrive—and make a difference—in traditionally male-dominated industries. 

Three Women to Celebrate on International Women's Day 2022

Dr Jalikatu Mustapha, Sierra Leone's first female ophthalmologist, sits for a portrait. © Super Mos Photography/Courtesy of Dr Jalikatu

Dr. Jalikatu Mustapha

Dr Jalikatu Mustapha is currently the only female ophthalmologist in Sierra Leone. She’s also head of the national eye care programme.

Throughout her career, Dr Jalikatu has seen some remarkable changes in the country. Before she began her studies, there was only one ophthalmologist working in Sierra Leone: there are now six. Yet as soon as she discovered the field and saw the impact that eye care could have on patients, she knew it was her calling.

“I’ve never seen anything like it in my life,” Dr Jalikatu says. “People are coming that are completely blind; they look like they don’t even have the will to live. And then the next day, the transformation after just a 15-minute operation was more than anything I’d ever seen. They are completely different: they have their independence. And that feeling was what inspired me to go into ophthalmology.”

Dr Jalikatu now works at the Connaught Hospital in Freetown: the hospital is Sierra Leone’s main eye centre. It’s also a teaching hospital linked to the College of Medicine and Allied Health Sciences, where she lectures and trains the next generation of ophthalmologists. Yet because there are only six ophthalmologists in the country, millions of people are unable to access regular eye care services. This situation is often even harder for women.

“In Sierra Leone, eye health indicators have always been worse for women than for men,” she says. “So that’s one of the areas I’m  passionate about. We’re being more intentional about reaching women and targeting them with eye health campaigns.”

Women’s eye health is a concern not just in Sierra Leone, but worldwide: globally, 24 million women are blind and 163 million women have a moderate to severe visual impairment.  To tackle this, many countries, including Sierra Leone, are making a concerted effort to ensure women are able to be treated.

To recognise her work, in 2020 Dr Jalikatu received an Eye Health Hero award from the International Agency for the Prevention of Blindness (IAPB). This led to a meeting with the Queen and the Countess of Wessex, a moment she describes as “one of the proudest moments in my life. It was a real honour to meet the Queen—I was nervous, but they put me at ease with a personal touch.”

Dr Jalikatu is hopeful that women in Sierra Leone will not share her experiences in future, thanks to steps being taken to stop discrimination. “We are changing the narrative now,” she says. “There are more young women like myself who are in professional positions and who are speaking out every day against gender bias or discrimination at work and in their personal lives. And some men are on media or social media talking about gender rights and, you know, just fighting the cause. People never used to speak about these things five or 10 years ago.”

Mme Mekati Matoko Pascaline © Sightsavers/Rose Noa Ngambida

Pascaline Mekati Matoko

Pascaline Mekati Matoko, the founder of Deaf Rights Cameroon Association, is passionate about promoting the rights and education of girls and women with disabilities.  

Pascaline became hearing impaired at the age of twelve. But although she faced some difficulties and discrimination, this did not stop her from continuing her education. 

“I experienced discrimination at school, at university and at work,” says Pascaline. “I applied several times to take the exam to enter the civil service, but I was discriminated against because people don’t accept applications from people with disabilities; they always look at the disability, especially for deaf people like me. 

At university, Pascaline studied law and received her degree in 2012. 

“After receiving my degree, I decided to create Deaf Rights Cameroon Association (DERICAM),” she says. “The main goal for our association is to promote rights and education for women and girls with disabilities and to help them learn how to be self-employed.”

Pascaline is also the president of the Association for the Promotion of Disabled People’s Rights in Cameroon and a member of the Decentralisation Working Group, which promotes local inclusive development. 

“I like everything that has to do with defending the rights of people with disabilities,” she continues. “There is a bit less discrimination against people with disabilities today and people with disabilities continue to raise awareness within society, to change beliefs. This is why the Decentralisation Working Group was created, for inclusion to become a reality and to stop discrimination against people with disabilities.” 

Pascaline doesn’t just focus on the rights of people with disabilities—she also has a strong passion to break down barriers and stereotypes relating to women and girls with disabilities. She’s also helping lead the fight for gender equality in Cameroon.  

“There is still a lot to do on the issue of inclusion for disabled women and gender equality,” Pascaline says. “Disabled women are still afraid to participate like everyone else. We must keep working on this so that women are determined to have the courage to make disabled women’s projects successful.”

Another project Pascaline has created is Miss Deaf Cameroon, a beauty competition to promote fair employment and education of women and girls with a hearing impairment. Their goal each year is for at least five to 10 girls to become self-employed, to reduce the number of women with hearing impairments affected by poverty or without jobs, and reduce cases of sexual harassment.  

“Cameroon’s Ministry of Culture and the Ministry for Family supports this project,” says Pascaline, “and in its first year we empowered and awarded grants to five women to create micro-projects to help them become independent. The grants that are given to them can be used to continue vocational training, find work, continue their education or begin their own business.” 

What does Pascaline want the future to look like? “My hope for my country is that there are laws that promote gender equality,” she says. “And there are some laws that have been created by the government concerning the rights of people with disabilities and to protect women with disabilities.

“These things give me hope that things can change.”

Pelagie Boko-Collins, analyses mosquitoes for the presence of the parasite that causes the neglected tropical disease lymphatic filariasis. © Courtesy of Pelagie Boko-Collins

Pelagie Boko-Collins

Pelagie Boko-Collins, Sightsavers’ neglected tropical disease manager for Benin and Togo, is paving the way for more women and girls to lead in the fight against neglected tropical diseases.

When Pelagie began her career, she was the only female entomologist who worked on neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) in her home country, Benin.

“I chose to specialize in entomology—the study of insects—as at the time it was the only opportunity I could see for my research to have an impact on the community,” she explains. “For me, it is very important to see the positive impact of my research on the community in terms of development and good health.”

For the first eight years of her career, Pelagie worked on malaria vector control with Benin’s Ministry of Health. After hearing a lecture about NTDs from Professor David Molyneux, emeritus professor and former director of the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, she realised there were many diseases spread by insects, such as river blindness and lymphatic filariasis, that needed attention to free her country from the cycle of poverty and burden of disease.

“After I finished my course, I contacted the Benin Ministry of Health,” Pelagie says. “I asked if there was an NTD department, because I had never heard of that before studying at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. They said there was an opportunity, but they didn’t have enough technical staff.

“So after I finished my master’s degree in Liverpool, I returned home and joined the NTD programme team. It was very exciting and inspiring to see leaders involved in NTDs, and be able to learn from them and work in the field.”

Yet she also faced challenges: in Benin, the NTD sector is dominated by men. “From the beginning, I faced being told: ‘This is a man’s job, you cannot do this. It’s too risky for you as a woman,’” she says. “It’s quite frustrating to hear that because I think, ‘Did I fail?’ No, I did not. I can do the same tasks as a man and I cannot accept being told that as a woman, you have a limitation, and I challenge that all the time.

“In my country, the stereotypes of women are not subtle at all. For example, before I started my job at Sightsavers a former colleague said: ‘That’s a man’s job. Are you sure you can do it? Are you ready for the sacrifice?’ Here, if a woman wants to succeed beyond the common expectations, the pressure is always there to tell you that it is not your place. It takes great determination to continue the fight to overcome it.

“Women need to break this barrier and have the power to break the barrier, but until then, there is little hope of equality. Women need to believe in each other to end the inequality.”

To help break the bias against women and push against gender-related stereotypes, Pelagie is a member of the Women and Science for the Developing World network. The group helps women to obtain scholarships, so they can progress academically and achieve great success in science.

“I think there’s still a lot to do to break the bias and I know my country is not unique when it comes to this. I believe that if we women keep fighting, we will win and overcome one day.” 

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