Score one against blindness, and one for girls’ rights
The rising sun warms the chilly air; its rays filtering through the mist to reveal verdant fields that stretch as far as the eye can see.
It is a breathtaking view that some 250 new patients will savour each day, as they walk out of the doors of the largest eye hospital in eastern India; their sight restored.
But Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital has done more than just help the blind and the visually impaired see.
Since 2006, it has also opened the eyes of Bihar’s impoverished population, who live in a society that has discriminated against women for generations.
Majority of its staff are women, a rarity in these parts of India, where gender inequality remains endemic.
Girls and women are often uneducated and expected to stay home, out of sight. As such, marginalised girls are often subjected to child marriage, dowry practices, domestic violence and other forms of abuse.
Mritunjay Kumar Tiwary, the hospital’s founder and project head, explains, “Akhand Jyoti is not merely an eye hospital. It is a platform for affecting bigger societal change.
“In a strong patriarchy like Bihar, you need a strong jolt to the community to let girls have their own way.”
To start the ball rolling, Mritunjay found the answer in a popular sport.
“It struck me, can we use football to draw girls out from their homes and then give them an alternative career?” he says.
“The equation was very simple with the parents. You allow her to play football, agree not to marry her before 21 years old, and we will sponsor the cost of her education, train her to be an optometrist or junior doctor.”
Parents were initially resistant to the idea, fearing education would make the girls too independent and ruin the prospects of them finding a husband. But Mritunjay was able to make them see the wisdom of giving girls the means to stand on their own feet.
Football to Eyeball, as it is now called, aims to promote gender equality while eradicating curable blindness in Bihar by 2022.
As of August 2018, 150 girls between the ages of 12-18 years, have been enrolled in a free programme that includes medical training in a formalised optometry course, supplemented by English lessons, and football coaching by professionals. Some 700 girls are already on the waiting list, which continues to grow, as word about the programme spreads through Bihar.
The girls go on to become qualified optometrists, with Akhand Jyoti hiring them at the hospital after they graduate. These girls in turn inspire and mentor other girls on a similar path.
With coaching, the girls begin shedding their inhibitions and a fresh psyche sinks in: “Yes, change will happen, yes, we can become role models, and yes, we can challenge patriarchies,” says Mritunjay.
It was through this outreach that Mritunjay encountered twin sisters Chhavi and Chhaya.
Both understand all too well the destructive realities of gender-linked violence in the conservative society they grew up in, in Damodarpur, Bhojpur.
They witnessed their father strangling their mother to death when they were four years old. It was their maternal grandmother Sunaina Devi who cared for them, fighting tooth and nail to keep the twins in school, as their mother would have wished.
Chhavi acknowledges the sacrifices her grandmother made, “She worked very hard to raise us. To educate us.”
Adds Chhaya, “Sometimes we wouldn’t have much food at home. Grandma would stay hungry, but she’d feed us. She stayed awake at night for us. She’d say, ‘You must study, you must study.’”
“I kept sending them to school with whatever I could manage,” says Sunaina. “But my financial condition kept deteriorating. I didn’t know what to do.”
Akhand Jyoti Eye Hospital stepped in at the right moment, offering Sunaina’s granddaughters access to fully-paid higher education.
Says Chhavi, “Our biggest mission and vision is to eradicate blindness in Bihar.”
“Because it’s not just about physical blindness, there’s also blindness inside their hearts,” Chhaya chimes in.
“They can’t see their own daughters; they don’t see the need to educate their daughters, or help them make something of their lives. So we need to cure this blindness of their thoughts as well.”
For Sunaina, the knowledge that her granddaughters are being taken care of affords her peace of mind. “When I was the only support in their lives, I was worried what would happen to them once I passed on. But now, my girls are looking after me, they care for me. In case of any difficulty, they are by my side, telling me, ‘Grandma please don’t worry, we are here for you.’”
Mritunjay believes that eradicating curable blindness will help eliminate ignorance, illiteracy and poverty.
To do this, Akhand Jyoti will need to enrol more girls in the Football to Eyeball programme, which promises to develop “girls with dreams” into “women with vision.”
The future looks bright for the girls and women of Bihar, who will lead the way in championing the end of gender discrimination.