Why I Created 'Merck More than a Mother' Campaign – Rasha Kelej

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Rasha Kelej at a Merck More than a Mother campaign

Rasha Kelej (B.Sc, Pharma, MBA) is the convener of this campaign. She is the Chief Social Officer (CSO) and Vice-President of Merck Healthcare. She wishes to raise awareness about the 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 for a campaign to address this issue this way?

A: You are right, this is a historic campaign. I have visited African villages and rural areas for other programs I have created for Africa called Merck Capacity Advancement Program where we raise awareness about diabetes, hypertension and cancer where I spoke to many women during these awareness campaigns. One of those women shared with me her devastating story of suffering stigma, abuse and isolation due to her infertility. On this day I decided to create a campaign to change this negative mindset and "Merck More than a Mother" was born that moment. I spent a month preparing, planning and creating materials, I couldn’t sleep properly until it got approved by Belen Garijo, the CEO of Merck Healthcare who was full of passion to make it happen and we started executing it.

Group photo with fertility patients and Uganda Minister of State for Health, Sarah Opendi, Ho n. Betty Amongi, MP and Chair of UWOPA, Joyce Lay, MP Kenya

Q: Why do you think it is important to empower these women?

A2: Infertile women in Africa have been neglected, mistreated and discriminated because they cannot bear a child. This is not right and has to change.

The campaign will empower those infertile women in Africa through improving access to information, awareness, health and change of mindset.

This campaign is very important since one couple in every four are infertile in Africa, a high percentage compared to the developed countries and 85% of those infertility cases are preventable since it is a result of untreated infectious diseases, such as STDs, child marriage, female genital mutilation, and unsafe abortion or delivery. And women are overwhelmingly blamed for infertility and discriminated, abused and mistreated by their husbands, family and community because of infertility

Although 50% of infertility due to male factor, but men do not want to admit or share this responsibility.

Pan African Panel of Merck More than a Mother held in Egypt

"Merck More than a Mother" campaign will work closely with policy makers, parliament members, governments, academia, healthcare providers and media like today, in order to define interventions to reduce the social suffering of those women and improve access to regulated fertility care via supporting ART policies across the continent, 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 :Why do you believe that "Merck More than a Mother" is a unique campaign and what makes it successful in your opinion, as we see in social media you have thousands of people from all walks of life from all over the world following you, all sharing their experience and insights trying to make a difference.

A: As I mentioned before: This campaign is very close to my heart as an African woman and as a pharmacist, and very important for Merck, the world leader in fertility management, but most importantly it is very critical for Africa, it is for the first time someone is talking and discussing openly this issue that affect those childless women and how they were and still are abused, mistreated and discriminated by their husbands, families and communities, it is sad, knowing this facts, 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 already made and will make a difference because it covers most, if not all, of the relevant angles of the infertility in the continent, such as:

  • Create a culture shift to respect and appreciate the infertile women in Africa.
  • Raise 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.
  • 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.
  • Defining ART policies to improve access to regulated fertility care.
  • Building 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.
  • Empowering infertile women through access to awareness, health and change of mindset and empowering women who cannot get pregnant anymore through starting a small business for them to build their independent and happy lives through "Empowering Berna" initiative.

Q: Where did you start Merck More than a Mother campaign and how was it received by all relevant stakeholders?

A4: We have started the campaign, in Kenya, Uganda and we had kicked off Pan African panels in New York to mark CSW60, Egypt and Finland at European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology. As you can see from the photos, ministers of health and gender, senators, parliament members, academia, African association healthcare providers, all welcomed the campaign and showed their commitments and they started already with Merck implementing the campaign especially the two important projects we have created: Merck Africa Embryology Training and "Empowering Berna."

We are invited to present the campaign at the International Federation of Fertility Societies- IFFS in Delhi, India on 23rd of September and we will kick off the Merck More than a Mother campaign in Nigeria on the 27th of September in partnership with Africa Fertility Society, Nigerian Parliament and Federal Ministry of Health of Nigeria.

Panel discussion: Hon. Joyce Lay, Hon. Sarah Opendi, Dr. Rasha Kelej, Hon. Betty Amongi, and Prof. Oladapo Ashiru, President Africa Fertility Society

Q: Can you tell us more about those two projects?

A: Through "Merck More than a Mother" we have started two important projects First one was the Africa Embryology Training Program which is very important for improving access to regulated fertility care in the continent, I 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 it is quality.

The second one called "Empowering Berna" where we are going to help infertile women who cannot have children anymore to start their own independent, happier lives.

A woman is more than a Mother, Empowering Berna initiative will prove this every day. www.merckmorethanamother.com

Click on the links below for some stories:

Berna Amullen, Uganda

Grace Kambini, Kenya

Chinelo Azodo, Nigeria

Noonkipa Mpalush, Kenya

Q; Can you tell us what are the success stories of Merck More than a Mother campaign?

A: There are many success stories in very short time, for me the most important success stories is watching those infertile women’s transformation after meeting Merck More than a Mother, through Empowering Berna project, they have been programed all their lives to be “baby making machines”, this was their only purpose in life, when they failed to achieve 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, productive members in society full of pride and self-confidence, they simply became more than a mother.

When I get to know these unprivileged women in Africa, who suffered the stigma, discrimination and abuse and who cannot have children anymore.

I knew that I have to be part of a solution, a project to help them to re-build their shattered lives, stand back on their own feet.

Empowering them economically is the only solution to lead their own independent happy lives and earn back the respect and acknowledgment of their communities. We will do it.

I am determined to find them everywhere in Africa and help them and 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; the approval of the first ART Bill in Kenya by Kenyan parliament, we supported this and I am happy that it is 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 will be out soon.

There is a very interesting law that will be enforced by the Minister of Land, Housing and Urban development of Uganda, Hon. Betty Amongi, 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 in empowering infertile women since they will not end up with nothing if they couldn’t have children, this is a great achievement.

Now during our latest panel the senator, Chairman of Senate Committee on Health in Nigeria, Dr. Lanre Tejuoso, who has been appointed as Merck Mote 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 27th of 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, improve access to fertility care in Nigeria? How do you think the campaign will empower women in Nigeria?

A: 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 Senate Committee on Health and Federal Ministry of Health, and Africa Fertility Society to execute our Empowering Berna Project, by allocating the women who need support and reaching out to them across the country.

Above all, we will support government to define 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. And will 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, it is serious, structured, great strategy and relevant achievable solutions, not only talk but serious actions. I never imagined that in just a short time we would have already a full 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 would never achieve these results.

"Merck More than a Mother" campaign launched for Francophone African countries

Her Excellency Madame Brigitte Touadera, the First Lady of the Central African Republic

During the Merck Africa Luminary held on Abidjan, Cote D’Ivoire, Merck launched the “Merck More than a Mother” campaign for Francophone African countries, championed by Her Excellency Madame Brigitte Touadera, the First Lady of the Central African Republic. The initiative aims to empower infertile women in Africa by improving their access to information, education and healthcare, and by changing mind-sets to de-stigmatize infertility.

”I am happy to champion the “Merck More than a Mother” initiative as it seeks to expand into Francophone Africa. I believe this initiative will contribute significantly towards eliminating the social suffering and stigmatization of infertile women and raise awareness about infertility prevention, male infertility and the necessity for a team approach to family building among couples. This is very critical for my country and for Africa at large” said Madame Brigitte Touadera.

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For more information on the Merck More than a Mother initiative please visit

Q: We have heard that you go all over African rural areas by yourself and you do this frequently. How can you do all this?

Yes, I do this exactly, it is part of my life, you have to remember I am African…..

But most importantly I totally believe that the only way to know Africa’s challenges and solutions and create and implement successful programs, is to get in touch with its communities.

If you are not in touch with the grassroots and know Africa from the internet in your office, it is never the same and will never help to leave a significant impact like we do.

For me, African villages and rural area is 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.

This article was first published at http://newsdiaryonline.com/created-merck-mother-campaign-raha-kelej/