Dr. Rasha Kelej, is the chief executive officer of Merck Foundation, an international non-profit organisation that works to improve the living conditions of women.
In this interview with Daily Su in Abuja, she highlighted how COVID-19 lockdown gave rise to more violence against women and girls in Nigeria and other countries of the world.
You were recently selected as one of the 100 most influential Africans; what does that mean to you?
It means a lot to me and my organisation, Merck Foundation. I am very proud to be listed among the 100 Most Influential Africans of 2019.
It is an acknowledgement of our efforts towards mankind, particularly ‘infertile’ women who are vulnerable in society. We have continually driven the agenda of eliminating stigma associated with infertility through our historic campaign ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ campaign.
It is aimed at empowering these sets of women through access to quality and useful information, education and change of mindset.
I am very passionate about this cause. I love my work and my achievements as an African woman.
Through this movement, we have succeeded in initiating a cultural shift to de-stigmatise infertility at all levels by improving awareness, training local experts in the fields of fertility care and media, building synergy with 18 African First Ladies who are the ambassadors of the movement.
I love to work with them and also supporting childless women in starting their own small businesses. It is all about giving every woman the respect and help she deserves to live a fulfilling life, with or without a child.
Your foundation has been working to empower infertile women in Africa on a large scale but what programmes have you executed in Nigeria?
We have partnered with the First Lady of Nigeria, Dr. Aisha Buhari, who is also the ambassador of ‘Merck More Than a Mother,’ to achieve some success as regards what we do.
She is also passionate about breaking the infertility stigma in Nigeria and to build equitable and quality healthcare capacity.
Through ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ campaign, we have supported 100 infertile women across Nigeria that could not bear children anymore to establish their small businesses so that they can rebuild themselves and live independent and happier lives.
We have provided training for embryologists to develop a platform of local experts in fertility care. We have also provided two Nigerian doctors with one-year diabetes and hypertension postgraduate diploma from University of South Wales, United Kingdom. We are fully committed to the provision of special training in the fields of cancer, fertility and diabetes care for more doctors across Nigeria.
Have you empowered the media to help educate the public about this?
Yes. Just recently, we introduced ‘Stay at Home’ media recognition awards, in partnership with Nigeria’s First Lady, Dr. Aisha Buhari, for Nigerian journalists 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 of the voiceless and to separate myths from facts, which is very much needed during these unsettling times of coronavirus.
COVID-19 has impacted on people across nations in different ways; what are you doing about it in African countries?
Undoubtedly, the lockdown period has hit most casual and daily workers very hard. To this end, 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 restrictions in movement.
We have made donations of relief items to African countries like Niger, Egypt, Ghana, DRC Congo, Zimbabwe, Malawi, Sierra Leone, Burkina Faso and Liberia, in partnership with their First Ladies, to support up to 1,000 poor families in each of the countries.
The aim was to save the livelihood of thousands of families as part of the ‘Separated but Connected’ Merck Foundation Initiative.
What about the plight of women in the COVID-19 lockdown?
Our special focus is still on women in Africa. Regrettably, coronavirus lockdown 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 in their abusive homes, struggling to access support service. They are lonely and suffering in silence. Therefore, our support is focused as previously mentioned on both casual workers’ families and women.
We have equally introduced ‘Stay at Home’ media recognition awards in partnership with African First Ladies of Namibia, Ghana, Nigeria, Democratic Republic of Congo, Malawi, Niger, Guinea Conakry, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Zimbabwe, Zambia, The Gambia, Liberia, Congo Brazzaville, Angola, Mali and Mozambique, to raise awareness on how to stay safe and keep physically and mentally healthy during coronavirus lockdown and to encourage media to sensitise communities to support health workers who are at the forefront of COVID-19 response, by providing high quality, respectful treatment and care.
It will also enhance their efforts in leading community dialogue to address fears, questions and separate misconception and myths from facts.
Lastly, we have launched a children’s storybook, ‘Making the Right Choice,’ in partnership with African First Ladies of DR Congo, Ghana, Guinea, Liberia, Malawi, Namibia, Nigeria, Gambia, Zambia, Burundi, Central Africa Republic, 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.
The First Ladies of 18 African countries and ambassadors of Merck More Than a Mother, including Botswana, Burundi, CAR, Chad, Congo Brazzaville, DR Congo, Gambia, Ghana, Guinea Conakry, Liberia, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, Niger, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Zimbabwe, have been extremely supportive. They have partnered with us to lead and execute the initiatives in their respective countries as our Ambassadors. They are committed to empowering ‘infertile’ women and break the stigma around infertility.
This speaks volumes about the work we are doing. As a part of Merck More Than a Mother, we have 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, DR Congo, 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 and Zimbabwe. Also, Merck Foundation has supported the establishment of the first public IVF centres in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda by training their staff to support ‘infertile’ couples in their homeland for the first time.
I am proud of the success stories I hear every day. I always feel that they are my children and I am proud of their success. 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 business so that they can be independent.
I have to highlight that we also worked with local singers, film-makers, media partners and fashion designers to raise awareness to break the stigma of infertility.
What’s the importance of these initiatives for Nigeria?
These initiatives are very important for Nigeria because Nigeria is the hub of art and fashion in Africa. I cannot wait to explore these beautiful talents and work closely with them to sensitise communities that women are more than just mothers and men are more than just fathers. They also have to know that 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 appreciate professional journalists who have been the voice of the voiceless, and those who have used the stories of infertile women to create a culture shift and break the stigma around them.
We have also initiated Merck More Than a Mother Fashion and Film Awards. We plan to launch all these initiatives very soon in Nigeria as the hub of fashion and art in Africa. We have produced and launched more than 20 songs with famous singers from Burundi, Ghana, Rwanda, Kenya, Sierra Leone, Zambia and Gambia, to raise awareness about male infertility and to break the stigma around infertility in Africa.
I look forward to exploring talented songwriters in Nigeria to start our theme song here too. We also launched a children’s storyboo, “David’s Story,” in African countries. The story has been localised and launched in many African countries with messages from their respective First Lady, and special message from me in English, French and Portuguese.
And local names and narratives have been adapted for each country. The children’s story book emphasises the strong family values of love and respect from a young age, which will reflect on eliminating the stigma of infertility and resulted domestic violence in the future.