DE-STIGMATISING FEMALE INFERTILITY: Dr Rasha Kelej on the Merck Foundation’s “More Than A Mother”campaign.

A growing movement empowering infertile women through access to information, education and changing mindsets.

Egypt’s Dr Rasha Kelej is the CEO of Merck Foundation and a reproductive health expert behind the growing “More Than A Mother” campaign against women infertility stigma – one of Africa’s least highlighted issues, on which she has the continent’s First Ladies rallying behind her. The campaign was launched in 2015. This year, the Foundation is also placing emphasis on a new twin campaign called Merck More Than a Father. “We need to reach out to the society to stop putting pressure on men to become fathers. As, this pressure and stress leads to violence towards their women.” says Dr Kelej. Excerpts:

“More Than a Mother” campaign is increasingly forming part of empowering African women’s narrative. What are your expectations in the short-term and the bigger picture through this campaign?

The campaign started in 2015 and is growing much bigger. We are now in more than 25 countries and we have First Ladies of Burundi , Botswana , Chad , Liberia , Malawi , Namibia , Niger , Nigeria , Central African Republic , DR Congo, Gambia , Ghana , Guinea Conakry , Sierra Leone , Zambia, Zimbabwe as ambassadors.

We have also trained more than 180 fertility specialists and embryologists in more than 25 African and Asian countries and we have partnered with media in more than 19 countries to highlight the issue.  We have also collaborated with musicians and songwriters in Burundi, The Gambia , Sierra Leone , Kenya , Rwanda , Ghana , Zambia and Malawi to sensitize communities and help break the stigma around infertile women, and raise awareness about male Infertility as well.

The first lady of Burundi has written and composed her own song and created its video clip to address this issue. And the president of Liberia .as well compare and sang song to encourage men to support and respect their wives and dedicate this song to us .

These First Ladies have gracefully accepted to become Ambassadors of Merck’s More than A Mother campaign and to long term partnership with Merck foundation with the aim of building healthcare capacity in their countries and to empower infertile women by helping to break the stigma around infertility in Africa and Asia. 

It took me a lot of effort and time to bring all of them on board. I have since been to most of the countries, and we have now started executing the programs in each country with the support of each First Ladies and Ministries of health, education , information and gender.

We also created two children storybook, one about empowering girls in education called Educating Linda, the second one – Story of Kofi and Ema, is about emphasizing strong family value of love and respect whether they can bear children or not – published in French, English and Portuguese.

What measures have you put in place to ensure their work is not politicized, and that the general public see the First Ladies’  involvement as purely women’s rights advocacy – rather than politics.

I lead the programs personally with the help of my team. We execute and make sure all the funds go to the objectives of the programs and we measure the impact annually and we meet to showcase the results and address the challenges twice a year. We involve ministries of health, education, academia and patients societies in everything.  We capitalize on each resource and each strength. It is never one person’s decision or action. It is a multisector approach with clear processes that require sets of approval.  

Where do the successes of this campaign lie?

The campaign is in an exponential success, the ambassadors of Merck More Than A Mother are very active and increasing every year , the social media followers and video viewers are growing currently more than 2 millions  , more than 180 fertility specialists Merck foundation trained over the last two years in more than 35 countries in Africa and Asia, 1000 of women are sharing their stories of suffering  every day , African media has started to discuss the issue every day after our regular health media training  , and we also worked with singers to write songs and produce video clips about infertility and delivering the message to all communities , since in many cultures infertile women suffer discrimination, mistreatment and physical and psychological violence.

Would you agree, however, that in Africa, we have a heavier burden –  in terms of empowering women and girls and advocating for their issues –  because discrimination, by and large begins in the home – were impetus is sadly  still routinely placed on the boy child? How does the Foundation work in terms of advocacy at grassroot level?

This is exactly the reason why we partnering with ministries of health and information and media societies, who will integrate the awareness about infertility prevention and the de- stigmatization of infertile women in their existing programs of mother and child, maternal health and HIV programs and media will reach all communities through local Radio and TV. In addition to social media with all our videos and messages to say #NoToInfertilityStigma and #MenToo can suffer infertility and not only women.

We have also launched film, media and fashion awards as part of our community awareness to encourage young talents to be the voice of the voiceless and break the silence in their day-to-day setting and in their communities. The winners this year were very creative and came up with innovative ideas to deliver the message to their communities in a way that can really influence them.

What new initiatives should we expect from Merck Foundation this year?

This year, we are going to focus on Merck More Than a Mother’s twin campaign – Merck More Than a Father. We need to reach out to the society to stop putting pressure on men to become fathers, as, this pressure and stress leads to violence towards their women. The theme of all our initiatives in 2020 will emphasis on Merck More Than a Father. Also, this year, we intend to partner with more African countries.
Another important initiative that we have just launched is “The Merck Foundation sustainability Initiative”. The aim of this Initiative is to educate, engage and empower youth and young entrepreneurs through access to information.

See Also

As CEO, how do you make the case for gender parity and the inclusion of more women in  high positions of power – be it the corporate world or in politics. Bearing in mind, education and financial independence (or the lack of) are some of the hindrances that hold many women back.

Many people think that men are the only ones responsible for gender disparity.  Let’s have a closer look, women are the culture keepers, and in the case of infertility stigmatisation, [sometimes] the mother in law or sister in law who are the driving force behind this issue and they encourage the husband to mistreat his wife for not being able to bear a child, although it is a shared responsibility and infertility can affect men and women equally.

In the corporate world, you often witness the ‘Queen Bee Syndrome’ where women do not support other women when they have the chance of authority and power. As the CEO of Merck foundation I always make sure to empower women and train them and give the opportunity to better themselves, most of my team are women. In the Merck foundation, empowering women and youth is in the spirit of everything we do.

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 and 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.  

Finally – describe in a few words: Who is The New African Woman?

Smart, strong , beautiful ,  dedicated , vibrant and unique. 

You can read more on the More Than A Mother campaign here

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