Here are two big, seemingly unrelated, problems:
Problem 1: Around the world some 285 million people are blind or visually impaired, and 80 percent of those people could be cured if they could only access the health care they need.
Problem 2: In much of rural India, women and girls don’t have the same opportunities their fathers and brothers do. In places like Bihar, the poorest state in India, many families can’t afford to keep all their children in school, so the girls drop out early. Some are married off while they’re still children.
Now let’s talk solutions: Enter the female soccer-playing optometrists of Bihar.
In 2006 a man in India named Mritunjay Tiwary founded the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital in rural Bihar. At first it was only a small, 10-bed hospital, but over the years it’s grown into one of the largest hospitals in India, conducting some 65,000 eye surgeries every year, more than three quarters of them for free. Its ambitions are of an even grander scale: It wants to eradicate avoidable blindness in India altogether.
But to do that the hospital needs to continue to expand, and to expand, it needs a ton of trained optometrists working in rural India. Luckily, the community has a huge, untapped well of potential in its young women and girls.
You see where this is going: Tiwary set out to educate the girls of Bihar and to train them to become optometrists. But first, he thought, he had to do something to combat the community’s attitudes about girls and women.
The answer? Soccer.
Soccer is hugely popular in rural India, but girls often aren’t permitted to play with the boys, even though many of them want to. Tiwary wanted to persuade people in the community that girls are capable of doing a lot of things that they don’t do, so he founded a girls’ soccer team and started making the rounds to village families, persuading parents to let their daughters join. In exchange for their permission to let the girls play soccer, he promises them a free education in a combined vocational and educational program.
At first, all of the parents said no.
But eventually one family agreed. Then a few more.
Today there are 140 girls being educated in the school and playing on the soccer team. After they finish their basic levels of schooling (think high school in the U.S.), the girls are trained as optometrists and can go on to work at the hospital or at one of its clinics throughout India. Overall, more than three quarters of the hospital’s staff are women—many of them women who, without this training program, would have had little opportunity for such a lucrative and fulfilling profession.
Kristie DeKoker works with Orbis International, a nonprofit that offers optometry training around the world in an effort to fight curable blindness (sometimes using a flying eye hospital—but that’s another story). Orbis is partnering with the Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital for this initiative, and DeKoker says it can have an outsize influence in India because elevating women can be such a tremendous force for good. “Women have an incredible influence in their communities and in their families, but they have been marginalized in a lot of places for so long.” she said. “If you can train these women and give them a viable profession so they can earn money and take care of their families, it can make a huge difference. They are people who want to make a difference in the world.”
Take the story of Ankita Raj, who graduated from the optometry school. Her uncle saw an ad for the school in the newspaper and encouraged her to apply, but her grandfather was against it. “I was the first girl in my family after two generations, and he wanted me to get married as soon as possible,” she said. But her parents liked the idea and took a stand against her grandfather so she could attend. Now she manages the hospital’s pediatric ophthalmology department and is a teacher at the optometry school.
“I became an example for my village girls so that they will also move ahead for changing their future,” she said.
Or look at Suman Tiwary, who is the captain of the football team. Before coming to the optometry school, she lived in a local village with her family and spent most of her spare time kicking a ball around with her friends. “Many of my neighbors were opposed to us playing football simply because we were girls,” she said.
Tiwary came to the optometry school solely because she wanted to join the soccer team. But when she’d completed basic schooling, Tiwary decided to join the optometry program, and now she’s passionate about her work in the community. “It’s very gratifying to help someone who is struggling with their vision and other eye problems, or to see the smile on a child’s face when they see clearly for the first time,” she said.
Now Tiwary wants to open up her own eye clinic and travel around India screening patients for eye diseases. But she also still plays soccer and says what she does on the field informs the rest of her life.
“The best part is the confidence level it brings to the other facets of my life,” she said. “It’s the source of my energy, which I channel to help the patients I take care of.”
When we asked these girls and some of their classmates what they would be doing if they hadn’t joined this Football to Eyeballs program, most of them guessed that they would have become young housewives in their villages by now, with children to raise and chores to attend to. Instead they’re career women who are also becoming a force for good in their communities and their country. By helping their neighbors see again, these women are opening the door to allow them to fully contribute to their own families and communities. For every dollar spent eliminating blindness, poor countries gain $4 in economic benefit.
They’re also contributing to India with their soccer skills—it turns out the female optometrists of Bihar are pretty good. Two of them even went on to play for the Indian national team.
Ankita Raj, the student who decided to study optometry despite her grandfather’s wishes, sums up the link between the soccer and optometry perfectly.
“I see a special type of confidence in each and every football player, a confidence to stand for their rights, for equality and all,” she said. And what about optometry? “It is a path for a girl to stand independently on her own feet. It is a special type of passion to provide a selfless care to the patient and to become more confident so that a girl can speak against injustice.”