I was born in Egypt, simple girl who wanted one day to change the world and be successful; I spent most of my life in United Arab Emirates, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I am a Pharmacist by educationand have MBA in CSR integration with Business strategy. I have been working with Merck since 1996. I’m very happy that I broke the glass ceiling after 17 years and now I am the CEO of Merck Foundation, one of the most important foundations in the world and the philanthropic arm of Merck. I had this dream but I did not know that I will realize it and will have this promising career by being myself and doing what I
love to do. I achieved this dream because someday, somewhere, someone empowered me and today it is my turn to support other women to reach their potential. Empowering women is in the spirit of everything I do, personally or professionally.
Q: Many young girls look up to inspirational women like you. What advice would you give an 18-year old self ?
Believe in yourself and work hard, never allow anyone to let you down, put your heart, mind and soul in everything you do, this is the success factor. And when you make it, do not forget to support other women, remember it will be your turn.
Q: Infertility is a sensitive issue in Africa, however it has been neglected so far, what led you to create your signature campaign “More than a Mother” to address this sensitive issue.
In many cultures in Africa, Infertility is a huge stigma and women are solely blamed for it. According to WHO data 2016, one in every four couples in Africa and developing countries are infertile which means that there are about 180 M couples struggling with infertility, it is not a small number. Avery high percentage of infertility cases are due to untreated infectious diseases which result from child marriage, unsafe abortion, unsafe delivery, STDs and genital mutation. These kinds of infertility cases can be prevented. Hence prevention is very important. More importantly, in many cultures women suffer discrimination, mistreatment and violence due to her inability to bear children, although 50% of infertility cases are due to male infertility, therefore we need to create a culture shift to respect women whether they are mothers or not, encourage men to speak up about their infertility and support their wives during the treatment journey. Hence we launched ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ campaign to empower women through information, Health and change of mind-set.
The First Lady of Zambia, H.E. Esther Lungu with Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation.
H.E. Madam HINDA DEBY ITNO, the First Lady of Chad and Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO Merck Foundation
Q: When did Merck More Than a Mother campaign start? Tell us more about it.
This campaign is very close to my heart as an African woman and as a pharmacist. I have met infertile women personally in many villages in the heart of Africa, they told me those stories of suffering and abuse, it was critical for me and for Merck foundation to help them, if we do not do it, who will. I created the campaign in 2014, got approved by the board and started in 2015; now it is in more than 35 countries in Africa and Asia. This historic campaign works at all levels from the top to the base of the pyramid; it supports governments in defining policies to enhance access to regulated, safe and effective fertility care. It also defines interventions to break the stigma around infertile women and to raise awareness about infertility prevention, management and male infertility. In partnership with First Ladies who are the ambassadors in their respective countries, academia, ministries of health and international fertility societies, the initiative also provides medical clinical training for fertility specialists and embryologists to enable them to help infertile couples in their countries.
During the high-level meeting between the president of Chad, His Excellency IDRISS DEBY ITNO, Guest of Honor Prof. Dr. Frank StangenbergHaverkamp, Chairman of the Executive Board of E. Merck KG and the Chairman of Merck Foundation Board of Trustees and Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO Merck Foundation, Merck Foundation confirmed their commitment to longterm partnership with the government of Chad to build healthcare Capacity and improve access to innovative and equitable healthcare solutions across the country.
Q: We have heard that you have launched Merck more than a Mother Fashion awards and Film Awards to empower infertile women. This is interesting, how did this idea come about?
And how would you involve Zambia in this innovative approach? I love art and fashion, I strongly believe that art plays a significant role in raising awareness about sensitive topics like infertility, hence will contribute significantly to break the stigma around infertile women in Africa. One of the great challenges today is that we often feel untouched by the problems of others, even when we can easily do something to help. Giving people access to data most often leaves them feeling overwhelmed and disconnected, not empowered and poised for action. This is where art can make a difference. Moreover Africa is hub for art with all its forms it was very important to reach people using their natural settings. This will help people give their best to help reach out to the voiceless. Hence, we decided to launch ‘Merck More Than a Mother” Fashion and Film Awards. As of now, these awards have been introduced in Ghana however we plan to scale it up to many other African countries starting with Zambia. My plan is to start these awards in Zambia immediately in partnership with The First Lady of Zambia, Mrs Esther Lungu, together with fashion institution and art colleges in the country. Through these initiatives we wish to remind our communities that Women are more than Just Mothers and Men are more than Just Fathers. It takes both a man and a woman to have a child.
Dr. Rasha Kelej, CEO of Merck Foundation and President of Merck More Than a Mother with The First Lady of Gambia H.E. FATOUMATTA BARROW
Q: You have many First Ladies as Ambassadors of Merck More Than a Mother, this is a great achievement. How did this happen?
We have currently 10 African First Ladies as Ambassadors of ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ including the First Lady of Zambia, H.E. Esther Lungu who agreed to be the ambassador during the Merck Africa Asia Luminary, the annual conference of Merck Foundation presided over by The President of The Republic of Senegal, H.E. Macky Sall. Other First Ladies as Ambassadors of ‘Merck More Than a Mother’ are:
H.E. Neo Jane Masisi, The First Lady of Botswana;
H.E. Denise Nkurunziza, The First Lady of the Republic of Burundi;
H.E Brigitte Touadera, The First Lady of Central Africa Republic;
H.E. Hinda Deby Itno, The First Lady of Chad;
H.E. Rebecca Naa Okaikor Aufo-Addo, The First Lady of Ghana;
H.E. Aissata Issoufou Mahamadou, The First Lady of Niger;
H.E Fatima Maada Bio, The First Lady of Sierra Leone
H.E. Fatoumattah Bah-Barrow, The First LADY of Gambia
H.E. Conde Djene, The First Lady of Guinea Conakry
I am very proud that many First Ladies have partnered with Merck Foundation and accepted gracefully to become Ambassadors of Merck more than a Mother Campaign and the long term partnership with Merck Foundation and have taken the pledge to build healthcare capacity in their countries and to empower infertile women and break the stigma around infertility in Africa and Asia. It took me a lot of efforts and time to bring all of them on board. This speaks volume about the work we are doing.Merck Foundation has also supported the establishment of the first ever Public IVF centres in Rwanda, Ethiopia and Uganda. Merck Foundation has been providing Embryology & Fertility Training to candidates from Africa and Asia to build capacity in the field of fertility. So far, more than 84 candidates from 29 countries, including Zambia have undergone the training. Merck Foundation is also making history in many African countries where they never had fertility specialists or specialized fertility clinics before our intervention, such as ; in Sierra Leone, Liberia, The Gambia, Niger, Chad, and Guinea.
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