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Saying no to female infertility stigma Dr Rasha Kelej 'More Than A Mother is about de-stigmatisation and bringing awareness'.

Summary: 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 the female infertility stigma. We caught up with her in Dakar, Senegal, at the 2018 Merck Africa Asia Luminary conference. Here are excerpts.

NAW: As a CEO, how do you make the case for gender parity and the inclusion of more women in high positions of power -- be it in the corporate world or politics. Bear- ing in mind that education and fi- nancial independence (or the lack of) are some of the hindrances that hold many women back.

Dr Rasha Kelej: 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 stigmati- sation, [sometimes] the mother-in-law or sister-in-law are the driving force behind this issue and 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 give them the opportunity to better themselves -- most of my team are women. In Merck Foun- dation, empowering women and youth is in the spirit of everything we do.

Congratulations on the success of the Merck Africa Asia Luminary conference. It was an amazing and poignant gathering. The take home messages were loud and clear -- Africa can do better. What next after Dakar?

Thank you very much. This confer- ence was very special, more so that it was presided by the president of Sen- egal, Macky Sall, who led 10 African First Ladies, 15 ministers of health and 1,000 participants from 57 countries. The First Ladies accepted gracefully 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 empowering infertile women by helping to break the stigma around in- fertility in Africa and Asia.

It took me a lot of effort and time to bring all of them on board and after this successful conference I will start executing the programmes in each country with the support of the First Ladies and ministries of health. I will soon be visiting Central African Re- public, then Botswana, Zambia, Bu- rundi and Ghana where the next edi- tion will be held.

2018 has been a big year for the advocacy of women's rights and many other issues. The More Than A Mother campaign formed part of this narrative. What are your expectations in the short-term and the bigger picture?

More Than A Mother this year is much bigger than when we started in 2015. We have 11 First Ladies as ambassadors and we have trained more than 100 fer- tility specialists and embryologists in more than 25 African and Asian coun- tries. We have partnered with media in more than 19 countries to highlight the issue -- and with musicians and song- writers in The Gambia, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Rwanda -- to sensitise the community to break the stigma around infertile women, and raise awareness about male infertility as well.

You will be working closely with some of the First Ladies as you have stated. What measures are there to make sure their work is not politicised, and that the gen- eral public see their involvement as purely women's rights advocacy rather than politics.

I lead the programmes personally with the help of my team. We execute and make sure all the funds go to the objec- tives of the programmes. 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, aca- demia and patients' societies in every- thing. We capitalise on each resource and each strength. It is never one per- son's decision or action. It is a multi- sector approach with clear processes that require sets of approvals.

You are a strong advocate for women's rights and the issue of female infertility stigma is one that you staunchly fight against -- hence More Than A Mother. Where do the successes of this campaign lie?

The campaign is an exponential suc- cess. The ambassadors of Merck More Than A Mother are very active and increasing every year, the social media followers and videos viewers are mil- lions. More than 100 fertility special- ists were Merck Foundation trained over the last two years in more than 25 countries in Africa and Asia. Thou- sands of women are sharing their stories of suffering every day, African media has started to discuss the issue every day. And we have worked with singers to write songs and produce vid- eo clips about infertility and delivering the message to all communities, since in many cultures infertile women suf- fer discrimination, mistreatment and physical and psychological violence.

Would you agree 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 -- where the impetus is sadly still routinely placed on the boy child. How does the foundation work in terms of advocacy at the grassroots level?

This is exactly the reason we are part- nering with ministries of health and media, who will integrate the aware- ness about infertility prevention and the de-stigmatisation of infertile women in their existing programmes of mother and child, maternal health and HIV programmes and will reach all communities through local radio and TV. This is in addition to social media with all our videos and mes- sages to say #notoinfertilitystigma and #mentoo can suffer infertility, not only women.

Many young girls look up to inspi- rational women like you. What ad- vice would you give them? Believe in yourself and work hard and never allow anyone to let you down. Put your heart, mind and soul into everything you do, this is the success factor. And when you make it, do not forget to support other women.

Finally, describe in a few words: who is a new African woman? Smart, strong, beautiful, dedicated, vi- brant and unique.


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Publication:New African Woman
Geographic Code:90ASI
Date:Nov 30, 2018
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