|Rasha Kelej – left|
Rasha Kelej is the convener of the Merck more than a Mother campaign. She is the Chief Social Officer (CSO) and Vice-President of Merck Healthcare. She wishes to raise awareness about discrimination, stigma and ostracism women undergo for their inability to have a child and also to encourage men to acknowledge and discuss openly their fertility problems and strive for an approach to family building with their partners in order to progress towards shared fertility responsibility among couples.
Q: “Merck More than a Mother” campaign is a great initiative to empower an unprivileged category of women in Africa, women who suffer infertility. How did you get this idea, as we know this is the first time a campaign has ever addressed this issue in such a unique way?
Rasha: You are right, the Merck more than a Mother campaign is historic. At first, I visited several African villages and rural areas for other programs, which I created for Africa, called Merck Capacity Advancement program where we raise awareness about diabetes, hypertension and cancer. I spoke to many women as I went round during those awareness campaigns. One of the women I met shared with me her devastating story of suffering stigma, abuse and isolation due to her infertility. This was the day I decided to create a campaign to change this negative mindset and you can say that “Merck more than a Mother” was born at that moment. I spent a month preparing, planning and creating materials, to the point where I couldn’t sleep properly until Belen Garijo- CEO of Merck Healthcare approved it. She too, was was full of passion and wanted to make the campaign happen; and then we start executing.
Q: Why do you think it is important to empower these women who faced infertility?
Rasha: Infertile women in Africa have been neglected, mistreated and discriminated because they cannot bear children. This is not right and has to change.
The campaign will empower infertile women in Africa through improving access to information, awareness, health and a change of mindset.
This campaign is very important since in Africa, one couple in every four are infertile – a high percentage compared to the developed countries. Although, 85% of those infertility cases are preventable since it is a result of untreated infectious diseases, such as STDs, child marriage, female genital mutation (FGM), unsafe abortion or delivery. And women are overwhelmingly blamed for infertility and discriminated, abused and mistreated by their husbands, families and community all because of infertility.
“Merck more than a Mother”campaign works closely with policy makers, parliament members, governments, academia, healthcare providers and media in order to define interventions to reduce the social suffering of those women and improve access to regulated fertility care via supporting Assisted Reproductive Technologies (ART) policies across the continent. The campaign works to raise awareness about infertility prevention, management and male infertility. Moreover it will also work with all relevant stakeholders to make a change in negative mindset and the culture of stigmatizing of infertile women and infertility at large.
Q: In your opinion, why do you believe that “Merck more than a Mother” is a unique campaign and what makes it successful? Already we can see the social media channels have thousands of people from all walks of life following you, plus they are all sharing their experience and insights, and trying to make a difference.
Rasha: As I mentioned before, this campaign is very close to my heart as an African woman and as a pharmacist, and it is very important for Merck, as the world leader in fertility management. Most importantly, it is very critical for Africa. This is the first time someone has opened up to talk and discuss this issue that affects childless women and how they have been and still are abused, mistreated and discriminated by their husbands, families and communities. Knowing these facts is sad, and I knew we must do something about it; it is not a matter of choice anymore, it is our duty and responsibility.
This campaign was successful and has already made and will continue to make a difference because it covers most, if not all, of the relevant angle’s of the infertility in the continent, such as; creating a culture shift to respect and appreciate the infertile women in Africa, raising awareness about infertility prevention and management and male infertility by integrating it into healthcare infrastructure such as HIV, maternal health and mother and child programs.
The campaign also runs education and training for African embryologists since lack of trained and skilled staff is a big challenge, and we have started our first training for African embryologists to improve access to effective and safe fertility care in the continent. We are also defining ART policies to improve access to regulated fertility care.
The campaign seek to build advocacy and open dialogue with governments, policy makers, parliaments, healthcare providers and media to define interventions to reduce the social suffering and improve access to regulated, effective and safe fertility care in Africa.
Furthermore, the campaign also empowers infertile women through creating awareness, access to healthcare and a change of mindset by re-building the lives of women who cannot be pregnant anymore through starting a small business for them to be independent and live happy lives through the “Empowering Berna“ Initiative.
Q: Where did you start the Merck more than a Mother campaign and how was it received by all relevant stakeholders?
Rasha: We started the campaign, in Kenya, and then Uganda. Plus, we have kicked off Pan-African panels in New York to mark CSW60, and the panel discussions have continued in Egypt and in Finland at the European Society of Human reproduction and embryology. As you can see from the photos on the Merck more than a Mother social media pages, Ministers of Health and Gender, Senators, Members of Parliament, Academia, African associations, Healthcare providers, all welcomed the campaign and have shown their commitment to it by starting to implement the two important projects we have created: “Merck Africa Embryology Training” and “Empowering Berna”
We have been invited to present the campaign at the International Federation of Fertility Societies- IFFS in Delhi, India on 23rd of September and we shall kick off the Merck more than a mother campaign in Nigeria on the 27thof September in partnership with Africa fertility Society, Nigerian Parliament and Federal Ministry of Health of Nigeria.
Q: Can you tell us more about the “Merck Africa Embryology Training” project and the “Empowering Berna initiative?
A: Through “Merck more than a Mother” we have started two important projects:
First one was the Merck Africa embryology-training program, which is very important for improving access to regulated fertility care in the continent. I have started this program because as you may know, there are no African embryologists in many of sub- Saharan African countries; hence it was very critical to establish this platform so we can reduce the cost of IVF and also ensure that it is of good quality.
The second initiative is called “Empowering Berna,” where we are going to help infertile women who cannot have children anymore to start their own independent, happier lives.
I believe it is very important to empower infertile women through improving access to awareness, health and change of negative mindset so they can bear children as part of their human rights. In case an infertile woman can no longer be treated,” Empowering Berna” project will contribute towards empowering and training them to establish their own small business so that they can be independent and re-build their own lives.
Q: Can you share with us the success stories of the Merck more than a Mother campaign?
Rasha: There have been numerous success stories and in a very short time. For me, the most important success stories are the transformation of the lives of the infertile women after meeting Merck more than a Mother, through the Empowering Berna project. Before, these women had been programed all their lives to know that they are a “Baby making machine,” and that this was their only purpose in life, when they failed to achieved it, they lost hope in life and they were just waiting to die.
Through empowering Berna project, their lives have transformed in no time, from hopeless, helpless women to stronger women, who are productive members of the society. The women are now full of pride and self-confidence: they simply became more than a mother.
When I got to know about the un-privileged women in Africa, who suffered stigma, discrimination and abuse and who cannot have children anymore, I knew that I had to be part of a solution, and a project to help them re- build their shattered lives, stand back on their own feet. If empowering them economically is the only solution to lead them to their own independent happy lives and earn back the respect and acknowledgment of their communities, we will do it.
I am determined to find infertile women in Africa and help them – This will be my purpose in life. There are also other success stories that I find very important, such as the changes that happened that will help infertile women in the future so they have better access to information, awareness, fertility care and change of mindset, such as the approval of the first ART Bill in Kenya by Kenyan parliamentarians. We supported this and I am happy that it has finally happened.
In Uganda, the ART guidelines are under Development by Minister of State of Health, Hon. Sarah Opendi who is the Merck more than a Mother Ambassador for Uganda, and the guidelines will be out soon.
There is a very interesting law that will be enforced by Minister of Land, Housing and Urban development of Uganda, Hon. Betty Amongi, that ensures that women will be able to inherit from their blood family and not from only their husbands’ families like it used to happen in Uganda. This law enforcement will empower women to choose when to marry and have children and it will help empowering infertile women since they will not end up with nothing if they cannot bear children, this is a great achievement.
During our latest panel the Senator, Chairman Committee on Health Nigeria, Dr. Lanre Tejuosho, who has been appointed as Merck More than a Mother Ambassador in Nigeria, has committed to approve a similar bill for Nigeria too before the kick off in September, this is a success story.
I am sure that more and more success stories will happen in the future.
Q: The kickoff of Merck More than a Mother in Nigeria will be on the 27thof September in partnership with the Federal Ministry of Health and Parliament. How do you see the Senate of Commission of Health together with Ministry of Health taking this forward to make a change in the policies, and improving the access to fertility care in Nigeria? How do you think the campaign will empower women in Nigeria?
Rasha: Before we kickoff the campaign in Nigeria, we will work on the preparation period of building advocacy messages to raise awareness about infertility prevention, male infertility and sensitize the community to change the culture of discriminating and disrespecting infertile women.
We will also partner with the Senate Committee on Health and Federal Ministry of Health, Africa Fertility Society to execute our “Empowering Berna” Project, by locating the women who need support and reaching out to them across the country.
Above all, we will support government in defining their ART bill to regulate fertility care in the country. Moreover, we will help integrate awareness messages about infertility prevention and male infertility in our healthcare system. We shall partner with Africa Fertility Society to provide training for young Nigerian embryologists to build fertility care capacity in Nigeria.
What I like about this campaign is that it is serious, structured, has a great strategy and relevant achievable solutions. Therefore, it is not only talk but serious actions, I never imagined that in just short time we would have a fully pledged campaign in the most populated country in Africa. We are grateful for the support and the commitment of our partners in Nigeria. Without them we will never achieve these results.
Q: We heard that you go all over African rural areas by yourself and you do this frequently. How can you do all this?
Rasha: Yes, I do this exactly, it is part of my life, and you have to remember I am African, but most importantly I totally believe that it is the only way to know Africa’s challenges and solutions, that way you can create and implement successful programs. You need to get in touch with Africa’s communities.
If you are not in touch with the grassroots, knowing Africa from the internet in your office is never the same and will never help you leave a significant impact like we do.
For me, African villages and rural areas are the destination of inspiration, I have to meet community members speak with them, understand them and see how they live and what they need first hand and not second hand and third hand.
I take this job seriously and I am determined to make a huge difference.