By Boris Esono Nwenfor
Leading one of the most important foundations in the world and the most influential in Africa, Merck Foundation, Dr Senator Rasha Kelej has certainly come a long way in establishing the Foundation to where it is.
In her drive to promote girls’ education and the empowerment of women, Dr Kelej has created the African Community of Art and Fashion with the set objective to be the voice of the voiceless and break the silence about many social and health issues in Africa and create a culture shift together. Dr Rasha Kelej strongly believes that fashion and art should have a purpose beyond entertainment and look good.
And ahead of the 37th edition of the International Women’s Day, this March 8, 2022, Dr Rasha Kelj who was named one of the Most Influential Africans in 2019, 2020 and 2021 has opened up on her journey from Egypt to the United Arab Emirates and to be the CEO of Merck Foundation. She has encouraged women that when they make it in life, they should not forget to support others around them.
Tell us about yourself, your journey towards becoming the CEO of Merck Foundation?
Rasha Kelej: I was born in Egypt, a simple girl who wanted one day to change the world and be successful; I spent most of my life in the United Arab Emirates, between Dubai and Abu Dhabi. I became a pharmacist and then I got my MBA from Scotland.
I was always determined to make an impact in the world. I believed in our Africa’s potential and African talents and capabilities, but I realized that there are many challenges in the continent with regards to proper access to patient care, education, information and change of mindset, which I wanted to find a way to address effectively in a new and creative way.
I joined the international healthcare industry in 1994 then started establishing Merck Foundation in 2012. After many years, I finally broke the glass ceiling and became the CEO of one of the most important foundations in the world and the most influential in Africa, and led its establishment and creation and implemented its program myself for the first two years before I got the team that helps me execute and follow up now.
Being in this position, I genuinely feel that it is now my turn to support other women to reach their potential. Empowering women is in the spirit of everything I do personally or professionally.
Tell us about your signature “More Than a Mother’ Campaign. How did it start and how did it reach where it is now?
Rasha Kelej: I initiated the “More Than a Mother” campaign in 2015, it aims to empower infertile and childless women through access to health, information, education and change of mindset. It defines interventions to break the stigma around infertile women and raises awareness about infertility prevention, management, and male infertility.
In partnership with 20 African First Ladies who work closely with us as our Ambassadors and together with the Ministries of Health, Information, Education & Gender, Media & Art, this campaign also provides training for the Fertility specialists and Embryologists in their countries to build and advance Fertility care capacity in Africa, Asia and developing countries. I am proud that we have provided more than 370 scholarships to doctors from 37 countries, to advance women’s health, Reproductive and Sexual care and Fertility Care Capacity in Africa and developing countries. However, Merck Foundation has provided more than 550 scholarships out of a total 1200 to female doctors in 42 countries, these are scholarships of one-year diploma and two-year master degrees in underserved and critical specialities such as; Respiratory Care, Endocrinology, Fertility, Cardiovascular Preventive, Oncology and more to empower women in STEM.
We also support childless women by helping them start their small businesses. It’s all about giving every woman the respect and the support she deserves to lead a fulfilling life, with or without a child.
I also started the initiative to train media. We have, so far, trained over 2000 media representatives from more than 35 countries, to raise community awareness and break the infertility stigma around women and support girls’ education and address other social issues related to women’s empowerment such as Gender Equality, Girls’ Education, Stopping GBV, Ending Child Marriage and Stopping FGM.
We have launched new initiatives as part of “More Than a Mother” COMMUNITY AWARENESS CAMPAIGN and I believe it is creative and out of the box, such as;
- Media Recognition Awards, Fashion Awards, Film Awards and Song Awards
- I have Produced and directed songs with local artists to address the cultural perception of infertility and how to change it. More than 25 songs have been created in English, French, and local languages in countries such as Sierra Leone, Kenya, Zambia, Ghana, Burundi, Rwanda, Gambia, Malawi, Liberia, Mozambique, Uganda. We are proud that we have special three songs created, composed, and sung by The President of Liberia, H.E. Mr GEORGE WEAH and the daughter of President and First Lady of Burundi and even the former First Lady of Burundi. for More Than a Mother campaign to break the stigma around infertility and infertile women in particular.
- We have heard about the new TV show you are coming up with, can you talk about it ?
Rasha Kelej: I have created our African Community of Art and Fashion with Purpose. We will soon be launching a television program that is going to be the coolest in Africa. It is set to be the voice of the voiceless and break the silence about many social and health issues in Africa and create a culture shift together. I strongly believe that fashion and art should have a purpose beyond entertainment and look good. They can contribute to sensitizing our communities about different social and health issues such as ending FGM, ending child marriage, stopping GBV, breaking Infertility stigma, supporting Girl Education, Diabetes awareness and healthy lifestyle, and more
We would want to know about your efforts towards supporting girls’ education in Africa
Rasha Kelej: I strongly believe in girl education and also that education is one of the most critical areas of women’s empowerment. When girls are educated, they can raise strong families, communities and countries. I realize there’s a need for more support as there are many brilliant girls out there who are struggling financially and socially to meet their educational needs. Therefore, we started “Educating Linda”, a pan African program that helps young girls who are unprivileged but brilliant to continue their education. The spirit of the project is to provide an opportunity for such girls to pursue their dreams and reach their potential through access to education. In partnership with African First Ladies, we have been contributing to the future of 100’s of girls by providing support in partnership with the African First Ladies through providing scholarships and grants that can cover school fees, school uniforms and other essentials including notebooks, pens and mathematical instruments. Moreover, we provide 3,000 sets of essential school items for girls’ schools to many countries yearly.
We also support and empower women in the areas of Science and Technology. Under-representation of women still exists in these fields, even though women have made tremendous participation and progress in their careers. Every year, we conduct the “Merck Foundation Africa Research Summit” in partnership with African Governments and African Union Scientific, Technical and Research Commission. Moreover, as I mentioned before, more than 550 out of 1200 scholarships we provided for young doctors through Merck Foundation were for female doctors, which is a huge milestone.
How according to you educating girls can make a difference?
Rasha Kelej: Educating a girl means changing the world — not just her world, but the world she lives in. Education is the key to unlocking access to economic opportunity and other life-giving resources for millions around the world. Educated girls grow into women who are empowered to care for themselves, their families, and their communities. When you invest in a girl, the dividends are immeasurable.
In my opinion, education is also a strong strategy to stop child marriage, GBV, FGM and STDs. I also believe that Girl education is the best vaccine for HIV. So educating girls can make a big difference.
You have also launched storybooks, what are they about?
Rasha Kelej: Together with our partners, the African First Ladies, we have launched many Children’s storybooks that we created to address key social issues such as ending child marriage, stopping GBV, supporting girl education, and breaking Infertility stigma. I invite all Africans to read them on our website www.merck-foundation.com
We have distributed thousands of copies of these storybooks in African schools. Our storybooks address a wide range of social and health issues including breaking infertility stigma, supporting girl education, ending child marriage and Stopping GBV. The storybooks have been localized for each country to have a better connection with the young readers. The inspiring storybooks released are:
“Educating Linda” and “Ride into Future” emphasize on the importance of empowering girls through education,
“David’s Story” – emphasizes strong family values of love and respect from a young age which will reflect on eliminating the stigma of infertility and resulted in domestic violence in the future,
“Jackeline’s rescue” focuses on the importance of Girls’ Education and highlights the immoral practices of society including child marriage and the dowry system and
“Not Who You Are” to teach boys to love and respect their future wives and eliminate domestic violence.
What is your message for all African women on this International Women’s Day?
Rasha Kelej: I would like to tell every woman to believe in herself and be confident at every step of her life. Passion, hard work, putting heart, soul & mind in everything is the success factor. Also, as I always emphasize, when you make it in life, do not forget to support others around you!