Sightsavers blog

Gender equality: why is it important?

Sightsavers ran a workshop in Dakar in December 2019 to promote gender mainstreaming in all its programmes.

Sightsavers, January 2020
A woman gives a talk to a group of men.

When a child is born, what is the first question we ask? This shows the importance we place on gender right at the start of a child’s life, and this can determine their path for their future.

In real terms, gender inequality is a major problem locally, nationally and globally. Not only does it affect the lives of individual men and women, but inequality also slows economic growth and hinders development. The unequal social relationships between women and men results in less effective policies, institutions and processes, and it means many people are left unable to reach their potential and are left out of making decisions and contributing to social change.

Sightsavers staff at country and global levels are facing incremental demands to factor gender into programme design and implementation across all thematic areas – and this can be challenging. To promote gender mainstreaming, which in turn promotes gender equality, Sightsavers hosted a workshop for 40 staff from eight countries from West and Central Africa in early December 2019.

Co-funded by Irish Aid, Sightsavers invited staff from ministries of health in Liberia and Sierra Leone and ministries of education in Senegal and Cameroon. As part of the workshop, we learned about wider multinational partnerships, including the work of UN Women through a talk from a representative of the West and Central Africa regional office.

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The workshop featured 40 staff from eight countries from West and Central Africa.

Working through 12 content-rich sessions, participants started with the basics of sex and gender and progressed to the nuts and bolts of embedding gender in projects and programmes.

All the sessions were bilingual, interactive and participatory, using a mixture of methods such as ‘chalk and talk’, visualisation and poster design, which aimed to be practical, hands-on and engaging. Sightsavers and partners are now empowered with the resources they need to ensure that our health and inclusion programmes are explicitly challenging inequalities and ensuring fair and equitable access for women, men, girls and boys.

We also drew on the experience of Khady Ba, a Senegalese disability activist from the women’s committee of the Senegalese Disabled People’s Federation (FSAPH). She suggested that Sightsavers ensures women and girls take part in all projects to get buy-in and ownership, and mentioned the importance of collecting data about women and girls with disabilities, as well as to involve women’s associations more in the projects.

Sightsavers staff were able to share good practice on gender mainstreaming, which aims to resolve existing gender inequalities and unequal access to and control over power and resources. Participants were encouraged to take the different situations of women and men into account when designing, implementing and evaluating programmes across all our portfolios: eye health, inclusive education, political participation and neglected tropical diseases.

Sightsavers and partners now have the resources they need to ensure our health and inclusion programmes challenge inequalities.

A woman in a wheelchair speaking to another woman.
Khady Ba gives her perspectives on how gender discrimination is a big problem for those with disabilities.

At the end of three rather intensive days, we asked participants what they thought were the most interesting or useful sessions. Staff particularly valued understanding the basics – namely the difference between sex and gender. This was surprising to us because we wrongly assumed there was a more advanced knowledge within our organisation, which is working more extensively on social inclusion beyond disability alone.

One session that resonated with the group was a talk by Lucy Muchiri, technical adviser for social inclusion in East and Central Africa, about gender-based violence, which challenged participants’ assumptions. For example, psychological violence such as coercive control – husbands or partners deciding when women can leave the house and who they can meet – had not been considered by many participants as a form of violence, and made them realise how much additional conceptual thinking is required to achieve effective gender mainstreaming.

Other ranked sessions from Sightsavers’ staff and partners included:

  • Gender norms in different cultural contexts: participants learned that what is considered culturally appropriate in one context, for example assuming that women must obtain permission from their husbands if they want to leave the country (Cameroon) may not be acceptable in another country (UK).
  • Behavioural change communication: How we can support effective gender behaviour change and why including men and boys is critical. Groups discussed that women alone cannot change social norms: men and boys, families and whole communities must be on board to achieve effective gender transformative change.
  • Multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination through the lens of disability and gender: gender-based discrimination when combined with disability can produce unique forms of discrimination. For example, in schools with inaccessible toilets, girls are more likely to drop out or have low attendance, especially in relation to menstrual management.

Staff particularly valued understanding the basics – namely the difference between sex and gender.

A large piece of paper with drawing and writing on it.
The workshops involved poster design, which aimed to be practical, hands-on and engaging. All photos © Nigel Kingston

Lucy Muchiri was  keen to make sure all the participants understood the content of her session on gender-based forms of control and power, asking the question ‘Are we together?’

We certainly are – Sightsavers staff are all moving forward to mainstream gender and bring about the transformational change we need.


name of person followed by a fullstop.Laurène Leclercq is Sightsavers’ global technical lead for education and social inclusion in West Africa
Diane Kingston is Sightsavers’ global technical lead on disability inclusion and mainstreaming in the UK
Lucy Muchiri is Sightsavers’ technical adviser for social inclusion in East and Central Africa

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