The joy and happiness a couple experiences during their wedding, can fade into sadness, depression and anger, simply because the marriage does not produce any offspring. Most times, it is the woman who suffers.
Rasha Kelej, CEO of the Merck Foundation, has devoted her life to ending the stigma associated with infertility and bringing hope to couples battling with infertility through her More Than A Mother Campaign.
She speaks to TW on her journey, her vision and impact of the campaign so far.
A Girl’s Dream, A Woman’s Journey and A Glass Ceiling
I was born in Egypt, a simple girl who wanted one day to change the world and be successful. I spent most of my life in the United Arab Emirates, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I am a Pharmacist by education and have an MBA in CSR Integration with Business strategy.
I have been working with Merck since 1996. I’m very happy that I broke the glass ceiling after 17 years, and now I am the CEO of Merck Foundation - which is the philanthropic arm of Merck, and is one of the most important foundations in the world. I had this dream, but I did not know that I will realize it and will have this promising career by being myself and doing what I love to do.
The journey was similar to many women from Middle East who were trying very hard to reach their potential, because there were no equal opportunities between men and women, and it was very obvious that men were favoured for better career opportunities. Things have changed in the past seven years, and women are being empowered and encouraged to reach higher positions. I met two icons of women empowerment in my company, who supported and mentored me to be who I am today, and today it is my turn to support other women to reach their potential.
Birthing “More Than A Mother” Campaign
In many cultures in Africa, infertility is a huge stigma and women are solely blamed for it. According to WHO data in 2016, one in every four couples in Africa and developing countries are infertile, which means that there are 180 million couples who are infertile. It is not a small number. A very high percentage of infertility cases are due to untreated infectious diseases, which result from child marriage, unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, STDs and genital mutilation. These kinds of infertility cases can be prevented. Hence prevention is very important.
During my first trips to rural Uganda, I met many infertile women and I discovered what they were going through and the stigma they suffered everyday, which was not fair and inhuman. The women suffered discrimination, mistreatment and violence due to their inability to bear children, although 50% of infertility cases are due to male infertility. Therefore, we saw the need to create a culture shift to respect women whether they are mothers or not, encourage men to speak up about their infertility and support their wives during the treatment journey.
I decided to create the “More than a Mother” campaign and integrate all aspects to work with all sectors to break the stigma of infertility and empower these women. This campaign is very close to my heart as an African woman and as a pharmacist. It was critical for me and for Merck foundation to help them. If we do not do it, who will?
I created the campaign in 2014, got it approved by the board and started in 2015. Now, it is in more than 35 countries in Africa and Asia. This historic campaign works at all levels from the top to the base of the pyramid. It supports governments in defining policies to enhance access to regulated, safe and effective fertility care. It also defines interventions to break the stigma around infertile women and to raise awareness about infertility prevention, management and male infertility.
In partnership with First Ladies who are the ambassadors in their respective countries, academia, ministries of health and international fertility societies, the initiative also provides medical clinical training for fertility specialists and embryologists to enable them to help infertile couples in their countries.
I am very proud that many First Ladies have partnered with Merck Foundation and accepted gracefully to become Ambassadors of Merck’s More than a Mother Campaign and the long term partnership with Merck Foundation, and have taken the pledge to build healthcare capacity in their countries and to empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility in Africa and Asia. It took me a lot of efforts and time to bring all of them on board. This speaks volumes about the work we are doing.
Painting The Bigger Picture
I strongly believe that art plays a significant role in raising awareness about sensitive topics like infertility, hence, it will contribute significantly to break the stigma around infertile women in Africa. One of the great challenges today is that we often feel untouched by the problems of others, even when we can easily do something to help. Giving people access to data most often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disconnected, not empowered and poised for action. This is where art can make a difference. Moreover Africa is a hub for art with all its forms, and it is very important to reach people using their natural settings.
This will help people give their best to help reach out to the voiceless. Hence, we decided to launch ‘Merck More Than a Mother” Fashion and Film Awards. As of now, these awards have been introduced in Ghana. However, we plan to scale it up to many other African countries starting with Nigeria. I strongly believe that Nigeria has a leadership position in all sorts of art and fashion. My plan is to start these awards in Nigeria immediately in partnership with fashion institutions and art colleges in the country.
Apart from the awards, trainings and advocacy platforms, we have launched songs with famous singers from Rwanda, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Gambia to raise awareness about male infertility and to break the stigma around infertility in Africa, such as Tom Close for “Life is bigger” song, and Sunita from Gambia for “ More than a Mother” song.
Two other projects in the pipeline are a song in collaboration with five singers from Ghana, while the second project is a Pan-African song with six singers from six countries of West and East Africa. I want to create songs for Nigeria and with Nigerian singers. We will soon start our efforts in the country.
We also introduced Merck More than a Mother Media Recognition Awards; to recognize and appreciate professional journalists who have produced accurate, informative and compelling stories about infertility, infertile women or couples.
There’s also, Merck Health Media Training - a special training session for the journalists of Africa that focuses on the international standards and media ethics for reporting sensitive issues like infertility in Africa. It is designed to benefit the journalists in understanding the infertility issues in African communities and to learn the best media practices to cover them, with the aim to break the stigma and sensitize our communities through all media outlets in all languages.
Merck Foundation has also supported the establishment of the first ever Public IVF centres in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda.
Merck Foundation has been providing Embryology & Fertility Training to candidates from Africa and Asia to build capacity in the field of fertility. So far, more than 84 candidates from 29 countries, including two from Nigeria have undergone the training.
Merck Foundation is also making history in many African countries where they never had fertility specialists or specialized fertility clinics before our intervention, such as countries like Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, and Guinea.
Through these initiatives we wish to remind our communities that women are more than just mothers, and men are more than just fathers. It takes both a man and a woman to have a child.
Even Children Are Not Left Out
It’s important to start teaching children respect and nurturing empathy from a very young age. We should teach boys these qualities at their schools and through media. I believe both boys and girls need the same kind of guidance.
Just like girls, young boys gradually learn how to control their behaviour during their pre-school and elementary school years. Hence, we created a very inspiring cartoon storybook for children. This story is our way to empower our boys to develop true respect for women and teach them family values of love and respect and few facts about infertility, prevention and how it affects both men and women equally.
I hope this will bring our children fulfilment and joy in their future relationships, as well as help them in their workplaces and in the community, to teach them to respect and value all people regardless of if they are parents or not.
It will be localized and launched in the elementary level schools of many African countries, with a message from their respective First Lady, as ambassadors of Merck more than a Mother, and a special message from me. It will be in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish, and local names and narratives will be adapted for each country.
Merck Foundation in Nigeria
Merck Foundation in partnership with the wife of the President of Nigeria and the Africa Fertility Society, launched Merck More Than a Mother campaign in Nigeria in 2016 to improve access to quality and equitable fertility care in the country.
Through the campaign, Merck Foundation has supported 100 infertile women across the country that can’t bear children anymore, to establish their small businesses so that they can rebuild themselves and lead independent and happier lives.
Merck foundation has provided training for embryologists to develop a platform of local experts in fertility care. Merck Foundation has also provided two Nigerian doctors with one-year Diabetes and Hypertension post graduate Diplomas from University of South Wales, UK and will continue to enrol more doctors in the next five years. We are planning to expand this in partnership with the First Lady of Niger state. The work is currently in progress.
I personally believe that Nigeria is Africa’s hub of art and fashion. Therefore, we are planning to launch ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ Fashion Awards and the Film Awards in Nigeria soon.
We are also planning to produce a drama film with a Nigerian filmmaker and director from Nollywood.
Women must believe they are more than just mothers. Men and the rest of society should respect and value women whether they have children or not. We also need to remember that women empowerment is not relying only on men, but equally on other women who have reached positions of power. They should support other women and stop being queen bees or cultural keepers.
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