Inside the mesmerizing world of Merck Foundation’s Dr. Rasha Kelej

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Infertility is a global issue, but has serious psychological trauma and social stigma, especially on women in Africa.

In some cases, it ends up in verbal and physical abuses, violence in marriage and many times divorce. This is why infertility remains an issue in Africa that needs to be addressed.

One woman who is determined to change the lives of those affected by infertility is Egyptian Senator, Dr. Rasha Kelej. She is the first African woman to be the Chief Executive Officer, (CEO) of Merck Foundation, (one of the world’s most important foundations) who has kept her efforts going for the last 10 years.

Dr. Kelej has worked towards breaking down barriers when it comes to challenges women living with infertility in Africa face. In promoting healthcare intervention, garnering media support to help remove the stigma, and facilitating further education for girls, her efforts have ignited positive change on the continent.

Dr. Rasha Kelej is the brain behind the inspiring ‘More Than A Mother’ campaign – a rallying call against female infertility stigma – for which she was recognised as one of the Most Influential Africans of 2019 and 2020.

The campaign, one of the most successful causes that has been spearheaded by Merck Foundation, empowers childless and infertile women through access to information, health, change of mindset and economic empowerment.

More than 20 African First Ladies, including Mrs Rebecca Akufo-Addo, have rallied behind the campaign as Ambassadors of “Merck Foundation More than a Mother,” which is very impressive. This campaign provides training for Fertility Specialists and Embryologists to build and advance fertility-care capacity in Africa, Asia and developing countries.

So far, Merck Foundation has provided specialist training to more than 180 local fertility specialists and embryologists, and more than 150 Sexual and Reproductive-care Specialists from Ghana and 36 other countries.  

Under her headship 1,700 media representatives from Ghana and 29 other countries from Africa and Latin America were trained on how to report on such sensitive issues and raise awareness in their respective communities.

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But that is not all! Dr Kelej has in her capacity as CEO of Merck Foundation,  developed many other impactful programmes such as the Merck Foundation First Ladies Initiative (MFFLI), Merck Capacity Advancement Programme, Merck Cancer Access Programme, Merck Foundation Diabetes Blue Points Programme, and Merck STEM for women and youth, which Ghana was a beneficiary.  

A role model
Senator Dr. Rasha Kelej was appointed by the President of The Arab Republic of Egypt as a member of the Egyptian Senate in 2020.

Lovingly called ‘Mama Africa’, Senator Kelej is an inspirational pioneer in transforming patient care in Africa. Over 1,300 doctors from 42 countries, including Ghana, have benefited from Merck Foundation scholarships of specialties training in critical fields.

“During Coronavirus pandemic, it has been more important than ever to build capacity and train specialised doctors. They may have a general practitioner, but no specialists. We simply made history in these countries such as The Gambia, Burundi, Guinea & Liberia,” she said this at one of the training programmes regarding the havoc COVID-19 has wreaked on the globe.

She has launched “I Can” Mentorship programme and “90 Minutes with Dr. Rasha Kelej” where, her knowledge and 27 years of experience can help in encouraging and guiding young Africans.

A style icon
Dr. Kelej is truly an African fashion icon and a champion of empowering fashion and art with purpose in Africa through supporting and mentoring potential new African fashion designers. She launches an annual competition through Merck Foundation for best design, song and film that carry messages to address sensitive social and health issues.

She has this for Africa and the rest of the world, “My vision is to develop a community of young African fashion designers in order to catalyse a movement whose reach extends far beyond just fashion. But to create a culture shift and be the voice of the voiceless in their communities.”

According to her, “Fashion industry has already got enough flaks for being superficial. Let’s change this perception and create a meaningful fashion trend to educate our communities.”

In  the field of music, Senator Rasha has produced and directed an inspiring pan- African song called, ‘My White Army’ as her personal contribution to thank the doctors and nurses fighting on the front lines of the COVID-19 battle.

The song, featuring singers from 11 African countries, in three languages; Arabic, English and French, has received commendations across the continent. Moreover, 20 songs have been released with popular African musicians of which two Ghanaian artistes, Cwesi Oteng and Adina, took part.

“This is my passion, and I am inviting all musicians across Africa to contact me and work with us to make a change. I am eagerly waiting,” she says.

“Passion, dedication, consistency, hardwork, strategic thinking, flawless execution, and close follow-ups are the key components to success, along with the ability to network and communicate rightly with the partners. Honesty and trust are also required to be able to succeed in such a field.

“Believe in yourself, work hard and never allow anyone to get you down. Put your heart, mind and soul into everything you do. And when you make it, do not forget to support others around you,” she adds, to drum home the need for the succesful individuals to  help those who are in dire need of help or support.

What  next?
She is planning to start two important projects pretty soon.

“I will begin production of a TV programme directed at African countries to unearth their fashion talents, and also start my own fashion line targeting Africa, through which I will cooperate with new talented designers from time to time to spread community awareness in rural African communities. It is not only my hobby, but it is also part of my personal contribution towards my beloved Africa.”

With these creative initiatives, Senator Dr. Rasha Kelej is cementing her position in African pop culture and has truly become one of Africa’s unsung ‘sheroes’ of women empowerment and health advocates.  

By Edem Mensah-Tsotorme

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