In this interview, the CEO of Merck Foundation and one of 100 most influential Africans, Dr Rasha Kelej, spoke about some of the laudable work, her organization is doing in terms of eliminating stigma associated with infertility, here in Nigeria and other part of the world. She also gave insight into the work the Foundation is doing during the Corona pandemic, to support women and girls under higher risk of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household.
We would like to congratulate you on being one of most 100 influential Africans. Can you tell us what was the reason of selecting you?
I am very proud to be listed among the 100 Most Influential Africans of 2019. This recognition is very important for me and for Merck foundation as it acknowledges my efforts, my team’s efforts for empowering infertile women and extensively working on eliminating stigma associated with infertility through our historic campaign ‘Merck More Than a Mother’, that aims to empower infertile women through access to information, education and change of mind-sets. I am very passionate about this cause and I love my work and my achievements as an African woman.
Through this movement, we have succeeded to initiate a cultural shift to de-stigmatize infertility at all levels: By improving awareness, training local experts in the fields of fertility care and media, building advocacy in cooperation with 18 African First Ladies who are the ambassadors of this movement, I love to work with them. And also, by supporting childless women in starting their own small businesses. It’s all about giving every woman the respect and the help she deserves to live a fulfilling life, with or without a child.
Merck Foundation has been working to empower infertile women in Africa. Can you tell us more about your programs in Nigeria?
Merck Foundation has partnered with The First Lady of Nigeria, H.E. Dr. AISHA BUHARI who is also the Ambassador of Merck More Than a Mother. We have been working to break the infertility stigma in the country and to build equitable and quality healthcare capacity.
Through Merck More Than a Mother campaign, Merck Foundation has supported 100 infertile women across the country that can’t bear children anymore to establish their small business so that they can rebuild themselves and lead independent and happier lives.
Merck foundation has also 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 Diploma from University of South Wales, UK.
We are fully committed to continue providing specialty training in the fields of Cancer, Fertility and Diabetes Care to more doctor across Nigeria after the official launch.
Speaking of the current scenario of Coronavirus lockdown, we have introduced ‘Stay at Home’ Media Recognition Awards in partnership with Nigeria First Lady for the journalists of to raise awareness on how to Stay Safe and keep Physically and Mentally Healthy during Coronavirus lockdown. I strongly believe in the critical role of media to be the voice or the voiceless and to separate myths from facts which is very much needed during these unsettling times of Coronavirus.
The Coronavirus lockdown has impacted people across nations in different ways. What are you doing about it in African countries?
The lockdown to fight coronavirus has hit most casual and daily workers very hard. Therefore, Merck Foundation decided to support African governments strategy to save the living and livelihood of casual workers and women who are affected the most by the lockdown or restricted movement. We are making donations in African countries like Niger, Egypt, Ghana, DRC Congo, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Burkina Fuso and Liberia in partnership with their First Ladies of course, to support up to 1000 poor families in each of the country with the aim to save the livelihood of thousands of families as part of “Separated but Connected” Merck Foundation Initiative.
Our special focus is still on women in Africa, as we all know in the times of Coronavirus as the pandemic has led to a horrifying increase in violence against women. Women and girls are under higher risk of domestic violence due to increased tensions in the household. Many of these women are currently trapped with their abusers, struggling to access any support service, they are lonely and suffering in silence. Therefore, our support is focused as previously mentioned on both casual workers families and women.
Moreover, we have introduced ‘Stay at Home’ Media Recognition Awards in partnership with African First Ladies of Namibia, Ghana, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Malawi, Niger, Guinea Conakry, Burundi, Central African Republic (C.A.R.), Chad, Zimbabwe, Zambia, The Gambia, Liberia and Congo Brazzaville, Angola, Mali, Mozambique to raise awareness on how to Stay Safe and keep Physically and Mentally Healthy during Coronavirus lockdown and to encourage media to sensitize our communities to support health workers who are at the forefront of COVID-19 response – providing high quality, respectful treatment and care, it will also enhance their great efforts in leading community dialogue to address fears, questions and separate misconception and myths from facts.
Lastly, we have also launched a children storybook called ‘Making the right Choice’ in partnership with African First Ladies of DR Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, The Gambia, Zambia, Burundi, C.A.R., Chad, Niger and Zimbabwe to create awareness about coronavirus and the ways to stay safe and healthy and to also teach them the importance of honesty, loyalty and hard work even during the toughest times .
Tell us about your partnership with African First Ladies and the work you have been doing under the Merck More Than a Mother Campaign.
I am very proud that First Ladies of 18 Countries and ambassadors of Merck more than a Mother including Botswana, Burundi, CAR, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, DR Congo, The Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe. The African First Ladies have partnered with Merck Foundation to lead and execute the initiatives in their respective countries as Merck More Than a Mother Ambassadors to empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility. This speaks volume about the work we are doing.
As a part of Merck More Than a Mother, we been providing clinical training to candidates from Africa and Asia to establish a platform of Fertility specialists and Embryologists. So far, The number of Merck Foundation Alumni in this field is more than 185 candidates from more than 35 countries across Africa and Asia such as: Bangladesh, Benin, Burkina Faso, Burundi, Cameroon, Chad, CAR, Cote D’IVOIRE, DRC, Congo Brazzaville, Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Kenya, Malaysia, Liberia, Mali, Myanmar, Namibia, Nepal, Nigeria, Niger, Philippines, Russia, Rwanda, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Sri Lanka, The Gambia, Togo, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia & Zimbabwe.
Also, Merck Foundation has also supported the establishment of the first ever Public IVF centers in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda by training their staff to be able to support the infertile couples in their homeland for the first time. I am very proud of their success stories. I always feel that they are my children and I am super proud of their success. They call me Mama Africa anyway, I love this name.
It is very important to empower infertile women by providing treatment so they can bear children as part of their human rights. But for those who cannot be treated anymore, Merck More Than a Mother’s initiative ‘Empowering Berna’ helps to train them to establish their own small business so that they can be independent and re-build their own lives.
I have to highlight that, we also worked with local singers, film-makers, media partners and fashion designers to be able to raise awareness to break the stigma of infertility. Though these initiatives are very important for Nigeria since it is the hub of art and fashion, I cannot wait to explore these beautiful talents and work closely with them with the aim to sensitize our communities that Women are more than Just Mothers and Men are more than Just Fathers. Also, it takes both a man and a woman to have a child.
Therefore, we have been conducting ‘Merck More than a Mother’ Media Recognition Awards in Africa since 2017; to recognize and appreciate professional journalists who can be the voice or the voiceless and the story tellers of those infertile women to create a culture shift and break the stigma around them. Also, ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ Health Media Training has been organized many African countries to benefit the journalists in understanding the infertility issue in African communities and to learn the best media practices to cover such issues and raise awareness by following international standards of reporting and media ethics.
We have also initiated ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ Fashion & Film Awards. We plan to launch all these initiatives very soon in Nigeria as I said it is the African hub of fashion and art.
We have produced and launched more than 20 songs with famous singers from Burundi, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Zambia, Gambia to raise awareness about male infertility and to break the Stigma around Infertility in Africa. Moreover, it is also an honor for us to have the First Lady of Burundi, H. E. First Lady of Burundi and The President of Liberia, H.E. George Weah do their own songs for our campaign. This shows their commitment towards our campaign. I am looking forward to exploring the talented song writers in Nigeria to start our theme song here too.
We also launched children storybook called “David’s Story” in African countries. The story has been localized and launched in many African Countries with message from their respective First Lady, as Ambassadors of Merck more than a Mother and special message from me in English, French and Portuguese. And local names and narratives have be adapted for each country. The children storybook emphasizes the strong family values of love and respect from young age which will reflect on eliminating the stigma of infertility and resulted domestic violence in the future.
Finally, I would like to say I cannot wait till we launch our programs officially with H. E. First Lady of Nigeria And Ambassador or Merck more than a Mother, H.E. Dr. Aisha Buhari. Stay tuned!