Dr. Rasha Kelej in an exclusive cover interview with Glow Magazine from Zambia

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Q: Tell us about yourself, your journey towards becoming the CEO of Merck Foundation?

I was born in Egypt, simple girl who wanted one day to change the world and be successful; I spent most of my life in United Arab Emirates, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I am a Pharmacist by educationand have 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, one of the most important foundations in the world and the philanthropic arm of Merck. 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. I achieved this dream because someday, somewhere, someone empowered me and today it is my turn to support other women to reach their potential. Empowering women is in the spirit of everything I do, personally or professionally.

Q: Many young girls look up to inspirational women like you. What advice would you give an 18-year old self ?
Believe in yourself and work hard, never allow anyone to let you down, put your heart, mind and soul in everything you do, this is the success factor. And when you make it, do not forget to support other women, remember it will be your turn.

Q: Infertility is a sensitive issue in Africa, however it has been neglected so far, what led you to create your signature campaign “More than a Mother” to address this sensitive issue.
In many cultures in Africa, Infertility is a huge stigma and women are solely blamed for it. According to WHO data 2016, one in every four couples in Africa and developing countries are infertile which means that there are about 180 M couples struggling with infertility, it is not a small number. Avery high percentage of infertility cases are due to untreated infectious diseases which result from child marriage, unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, STDs and genital mutation. These kinds of infertility cases can be prevented. Hence prevention is very important. More importantly, in many cultures women suffer discrimination, mistreatment and violence due to her inability to bear children, although 50% of infertility cases are due to male infertility, therefore we 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. Hence we launched ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ campaign to empower women through information, Health and change of mind-set.


The First Lady of Zambia, H.E. Esther Lungu with Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation.


H.E. Madam HINDA DEBY ITNO, the First Lady of Chad and Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO Merck Foundation

Q: When did Merck More Than a Mother campaign start? Tell us more about it.

This campaign is very close to my heart as an African woman and as a pharmacist. I have met infertile women personally in many villages in the heart of Africa, they told me those stories of suffering and abuse, 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 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.


During the high-level meeting between the president of Chad, His Excellency IDRISS DEBY ITNO, Guest of Honor Prof. Dr. Frank StangenbergHaverkamp, Chairman of the Executive Board of E. Merck KG and the Chairman of Merck Foundation Board of Trustees and Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO Merck Foundation, Merck Foundation confirmed their commitment to longterm partnership with the government of Chad to build healthcare Capacity and improve access to innovative and equitable healthcare solutions across the country.

Q: We have heard that you have launched Merck more than a Mother Fashion awards and Film Awards to empower infertile women. This is interesting, how did this idea come about?
And how would you involve Zambia in this innovative approach? I love art and fashion, I strongly believe that art plays a significant role in raising awareness about sensitive topics like infertility, hence 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 hub for art with all its forms it was 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 Zambia. My plan is to start these awards in Zambia immediately in partnership with The First Lady of Zambia, Mrs Esther Lungu, together with fashion institution and art colleges in the country. 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.


Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation and President of Merck More Than a Mother with The First Lady of Gambia H.E. FATOUMATTA BARROW

Q: You have many First Ladies as Ambassadors of Merck More Than a Mother, this is a great achievement. How did this happen?
We have currently 10 African First Ladies as Ambassadors of ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ including the First Lady of Zambia, H.E. Esther Lungu who agreed to be the ambassador during the Merck Africa Asia Luminary, the annual conference of Merck Foundation presided over by The President of The Republic of Senegal, H.E. Macky Sall. Other First Ladies as Ambassadors of ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ are:

H.E. Neo Jane Masisi, The First Lady of Botswana;
H.E. Denise Nkurunziza, The First Lady of the Republic of Burundi;
H.E Brigitte Touadera, The First Lady of Central Africa Republic;
H.E. Hinda Deby Itno, The First Lady of Chad;
H.E. Rebecca Naa Okaikor Aufo-Addo, The First Lady of Ghana;
H.E. Aissata Issoufou Mahamadou, The First Lady of Niger;
H.E Fatima Maada Bio, The First Lady of Sierra Leone
H.E. Fatoumattah Bah-Barrow, The First LADY of Gambia
H.E. Conde Djene, The First Lady of Guinea Conakry

I am very proud that many First Ladies have partnered with Merck Foundation and accepted gracefully to become Ambassadors of Merck 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 volume about the work we are doing.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 Zambia 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 ; in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, and Guinea.


Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation; H.E. MACKY SALL, The President of Senegal with First Ladies at Senegal

Q: We heard that you have produced songs with African artists. Tell us more about this initiative?
Apart from the awards, training 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 Tom Close for “Life is bigger” song and Sunita from Gambia for “More than a Mother” song. Another two projects in the pipeline, a song in collaboration with five singers from Ghana, this song will unique and will make a big difference. Second project is Pan African song with six singers from six countries of west and east Africa. I want to create songs for Zambia too with Zambian singers. I call on them to contact me to join our efforts in the country.
 


Dr. Rasha Kelej CEO of Merck Foundation meets First Lady of Gambia , H.E. Fatoumattah Bah-Barrow, First Lady of Lesotho H.E. Maesiah Thabane, First Lady of Botswana H.E. Neo Masisi, and First Lady of Zimbabwe H.E. Auxillia Mnangagwa to discuss Merck Cancer Access Program and Merck Foundation long term partnership to build capacity in their countries

Q: What about the partnership with media, and how this will help the campaign. Can you elaborate?
I strongly believe that Media has a critical role to influence our society and create a cultural shift. Like art, it is our soft power. Hence, we 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. Also, Merck Health Media Training; a special training session for the journalists of Africa that focuses 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 it with the aim to break its stigma and sensitize our communities through all media outliers in al languages. We conducted the Health Media Training in partnership with the First Lady together Ministry of Health in Lusaka in February 2019 for the all the media representatives of the Zambia. 


Merck Foundation–African First Ladies panel chaired by Merck Foundation CEO, Dr. Rasha Kelej at the 4th edition of Merck Africa Asia Luminary 2017, Egypt The high-level panel included (from left to right): Hon. Chairperson of National Council of Namibia, Margaret Mensah-Williams; Her Excellency First Lady of Central African Republic Madame Brigitte Touadera; Her Excellency First Lady of Chad Madame Hinda Deby Itno; Dr Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation, Her Excellency First Lady of the Republic of Niger Madame Aissata Issoufou Mahamadou; and Her Excellency First Lady of the Republic of Guinea Madame Conde Djene

Q: We heard your strategy of educating children to respect women from young ages. What are you doing to achieve this?
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. Hence we created a very inspiring cartoon storybook for children; This story is our way to empower our boys 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 It will be localized and launched in the elementary level school of many African Countries with message from their respective First Lady, as ambassadors of Merck more than a Mother and special message from me. It will be in English, French, Portuguese and Spanish. And local names and narratives will be adapted for each country. We will very soon launch it in Zambia with the message from The First Lady of Zambia.


(L-R) Prof. Dr. Frank Stangenberg Haverkamp, Chairman of the Executive Board of E. Merck KG and the Chairman of Merck Foundation Board of Trustees, Dr. Rasha Kelej, the CEO of Merck Foundation and Her Excellency, the First Lady of Niger, H.E. Mrs. AISSATA ISSOUFOU MAHAMADOU

Q: Tell us about the work you have done in Zambia.
We launched Merck Foundation and Merck More Than a Mother officially in partnership of the First Lady of Zambia together with Ministry of Health, in February 2019. Merck Foundation established a long term partnership with the First Lady of Zambia and Ministry of Health to support build healthcare capacity in the fields Oncology, Fertility, Diabetes and hypertension with the aim of improving access to equitable and quality healthcare solutions nationwide. As I mentioned above, Her Excellency First 1Lady of Zambia is the Ambassador of Merck More Than a Mother campaign to empower infertile women through access to information, Health and change of mindset to break the stigma around infertility. Through its 111Merck Fertility Training program, Merck Foundation has trained the first Fertility specialists in Zambia, and will continue to train more candidates to help infertile couples across the country. Merck Foundation has also trained the first Surgical, Pediatric and Gynaecology Oncologist in Zambia through one-year Merck Oncology Fellowship Program in India. In partnership with the First Lady of Zambia, Merck Foundation has committed to scale the program to 10 candidates from different provinces to ensure the benefit of the program nationwide. Further, Merck Foundation in partnership with The First Lady and Ministry of Health, will continue enrolling doctors from Zambia in their one year and two-year oncology fellowship program and Master degree program in Tata Memorial Centre, University of Malaya and Cairo University respectively as a contribution to improve cancer care in the country. Moreover, Merck Foundation will provide one year on line diabetes diploma to 10 doctors, one from each province in Zambia as part of Merck Foundation Blue points.

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The Merck Foundation, established in 2017, is the philanthropic arm of Merck KGaA Germany, aims to improve the health and wellbeing of people and advance their lives through science and technology. Our efforts are primarily focused on improving access to quality & equitable healthcare solutions in underserved communities, building healthcare and scientific research capacity and empowering people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics) with a special focus on women and youth. All Merck Foundation press releases are distributed by e-mail at the same time they become available on the Merck Foundation Website.  Please visit www.merck-foundation.com to read more. To know more, reach out to our social media: Merck Foundation; Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Flicker.

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