Meet the Incredible Women Transforming Zambia’s Eye Health

If you live in Zambia and ever need eye surgery, chances are your ophthalmologist will be female. This is what makes the country’s eye health sector so unique: the great number of women dedicated to working and levelling up their skills in ophthalmology.

With its large blind population and high rates of childhood blindness, we have been collaborating with our partners in Zambia to transform the quality of eye care and combat avoidable blindness for over a decade.

Despite Zambia’s huge population and a shortage of trained eye health professionals to meet eye care demands, together, we and our partners have made an enormous impact. In 2021 alone, 51,000 people were screened, 1,700 received surgery, and 85,000 accessed eye care services, even with a pandemic raging on.

Coupled with this progress, the ophthalmology field in Zambia is one that has more women proudly practicing in it than men. To celebrate their achievements, hear how the wonderful women below were drawn to working in the field, their compassion for saving sight, and their advice for young women considering a career in ophthalmology.

Dr. Zipporah Phiri Is a National Treasure

Dr. Phiri is the only Vitreo-Retinal surgeon in Zambia.

First up, meet Dr. Phiri, Consultant Vitreo-Retinal Surgeon (a surgeon who treats problems at the back of the eye involving the retina, macula, and vitreous fluid) at the University Teaching Hospital (UTH)-Eye Hospital in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka. Her unique set of skills makes her the only surgeon of her kind in Zambia!

After graduating with her Master of Medicine in Ophthalmology and training at the University of Nairobi, Dr. Phiri took on a sub-specialty in vitreo-retinal surgery.

She was drawn to the sub-specialty upon seeing a lot of disadvantaged people with retinal detachment going blind because there was no vitreo-retinal specialist in the country. At the time, all cases were being referred to India by the Ministry of Health.

I was very touched when I saw such cases because everything else in front of the eye I could sort out except when it came to the back of the eye, where the retina is located,” shared Dr. Phiri.

She trained in India and Tanzania, taking on 153 cases before graduating to be the first female vitreo-retinal surgeon in the country. Dr. Phiri pointed out that there are career biases against women in careers or fields that are male-dominated.

Her desire is to raise the profile of vitreo-retinal surgery in Zambia so that more people can have the procedure done locally. She is also a founding Fellow of the Zambia Colleges of Medicine and Surgery and actively involved in a specialist training program directly under the Ministry of Health.

According to her philosophy, an educated woman will ensure her children are educated as well, which is why it is imperative to educate and empower women as, ultimately, an entire nation gets educated this way.

Annie Kawimbe Makes Small Sacrifices for Bigger Goals

The wonderful Annie is an enrolled nurse working at a Dental and Eye Clinic. Although she is not trained in ophthalmology, she is trained in primary health care and able to screen and diagnose eye conditions as well as conduct a few minor surgeries.

The hard-working single mom, who has worked at the clinic for 11 years, now plans to transition from enrolled nursing to registered nursing, where she will eventually study ophthalmology, which she admires because of the almost instant results.

She shared: “Sometimes we have cases of children born with squint or lazy eye and we refer them to the Kitwe Central Hospital for specialized treatment through Orbis’s support. Seeing them return from a successful eye operation makes us happy and proud of our work.” Annie says if you have a passion to serve people, consider ophthalmology. She advised: “Take the course because you enjoy it and not because you have been forced to.

She is also a big believer in gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow. Prioritizing equity across all sectors means building a more sustainable future for everyone in society. Annie added: I am a single mother of two who is proud to be able to provide for them because I can do what a man can.”

Bwalya Mwenya Has a Heart for the People

Bwalya is so dedicated to the field that she is now taking on a degree in ophthalmology.

After receiving Orbis training as well as our support establishing and growing the eye center where she works, Bwalya is now Ophthalmic Clinical Officer at Masaiti District Hospital.

Bwalya, who screens eye conditions like cataracts and refractive errors on a daily basis, shared: “I liked ophthalmology from the word ‘go’ while working as a general clinical officer. When I was screening general patients, I used to come across eye conditions which I couldn’t treat so the hospital would refer patients to Kitwe or Ndola. Some of our clients could not manage to go to those towns and, in the process, would go blind.

Bwalya’s passion for her community is what makes her want to make a difference. When she looked at the number of cases of people that went blind, she was inspired to train in ophthalmology and become an ophthalmic clinical officer. It took her two years to train and qualify.

Thanks to the collaboration between Masaiti District Hospital and Orbis, which is also equipping the eye center and providing outreach to remote patients, there is no need to travel as far to Kitwe and Ndola for sight-saving treatment.

Her aspirations and compassion for eye care do not stop there! Bwalya is currently studying for a Bachelor of Science in ophthalmology to add to her advanced diploma and has even encouraged two people in her department to study ophthalmology. When she considers her contribution to the field, she feels she is inspiring someone out there, particularly young women.

Foster Kalabwe Phiri Says “Sight Is a Gift for All”

Foster loves seeing the faces of her patients when she tells them they have a correctable eye condition.

Foster is a registered Ophthalmic Nurse based at the Chingola District Dental and Eye Clinic. Her interest in learning about the eye and its main functions first began because she and six family members all wear glasses due to a genetic allergy condition.

She added: “What drew me to ophthalmology is it is the only specialty that deals with both surgery and internal medicine. In ophthalmology, we are able to screen patients, diagnose them, offer them treatment, and after that, intervene if their conditions require surgery.”

She gets real job satisfaction watching the relief and joy on the face of someone who did not know they had a correctable eye condition.

Foster explained that the eye is a window, and if one is unable to see, it can affect the quality of their life. Sometimes this might mean a person has to stop work or switch careers against their will. She is also grateful for the opportunity to meet people of varying ages because of ophthalmology, and the excitement she observes across all age groups is an experience that never gets old with her.

When asked about breaking gender bias in eye health, she shared: “Breaking the bias for me is about women not limiting themselves and proving that they can deliver in any career of their choice, just like the menfolk.”

For her, empowering women means empowering families, communities, and nations. “When I look at where I am today in ophthalmology and where I was previously, I realise that I have experienced growth and I am now able to share knowledge with others.”

To young women and girls thinking about following the ophthalmology route, she says the most important thing is to follow one’s heart. She ended: “Sight is a gift for all, and if you love what you do, it will work to your advantage, even when you have difficulty."

Dr. Grace Mutati Is a Pioneer in Ophthalmology

Dr. Mutati is a major influencer in the eye health space in Zambia!

When Dr. Mutati began studying ophthalmology over 20 years ago, she had to go further afield and study in the United Kingdom as there was no local training for ophthalmologists in Zambia at the time.

As an ophthalmology consultant and the former head of the University Teaching Hospital (UTH)-Eye Hospital, various factors attracted her to the field. She had studied medicine, which for her, was hectic, requiring a lot of sacrifice as she sought to balance having a career with being a wife and mother.

She shared: “I needed to choose a field that would allow me to live a life as a family person and be professional, so I found ophthalmology was that field. I tried other fields like radiology, but I missed the doctor-patient contact, so I went back to ophthalmology and decided to specialize in that.

Drawn to the uniqueness of the field where doctors and ophthalmic personnel in general sometimes see the results of their efforts instantly, she found it particularly fulfilling.

She was instrumental in advocating with NGOs and the government to provide ophthalmic training in Zambia by championing the development of a curriculum and the establishment of a master’s program in ophthalmology in the country for the first time. The program began in 2011 with only five candidates, and now there are over 50 locally trained ophthalmologists. She also participated in the development of ophthalmology curricula at the regional level and as an examiner of candidates from the region of East and Southern Africa.

When asked about her views on gender bias, she said: “I feel there are a number of factors that fuel bias, and one of them is the mindset. As women, if we can convince ourselves that we are just as good as men, things would be different. The perceptions and traditional views of what a woman can and cannot do further cause this bias.”

In Zambia, the Future of Eye Care Is Female!

Meet more wonderful women dedicated to ensuring healthy vision and breaking gender stereotypes in Zambia.

Thank You for Empowering Women in Eye Health

We hope you enjoyed reading the inspiring stories of the incredible women dedicated to saving sight and changing countless lives in Zambia.

For over a decade, your kindness and the support of our committed partners have enabled us to train both women and men eye health professionals in the country and successfully deliver long-term projects that strengthen the country’s quality of eye health.

While we have made great progress, there is still a shortage of trained ophthalmologists and eye teams to meet rising eye care demands, as well as lack of access to quality care, especially in isolated communities.

But your continued support means so much to us because, with it, we can reach even more people in Zambia with the best possible eye care.

As always, a huge thank you for standing with us in our fight against avoidable blindness.


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