German-based innovative healthcare company Merck first launched their ‘More Than A Mother’ campaign in 2015 in Kenya, with the aim to reduce the suffering and stigma of infertile women. The campaign has since been implemented in other countries such as Uganda, Cote d’Ivoire, Central African Republic and most recently, Nigeria.
Merck has partnered with various organizations and universities in each country in order to share important information about healthcare, challenge and shift harmful cultural perspectives about women who cannot bear children, and also arm local medical practitioners with the knowledge and tools to best serve the female population and their families.
“Through the ‘More than a Mother’ campaign, we will challenge the perception about infertile women, their roles and worth in society, both within and beyond the medical profession in order to achieve any systemic shift in the current culture of gender discrimination in the context of fertility care,” said Professor Koigi Kamau from the University of Nairobi in a press release.
In some cultures, infertility leads to societal discrimination and even violence by the hands of husbands and family members, and infertile women are often left to shoulder the blame due to male infertility not necessarily being commonly known.
“Providing access to infertility care is important, but it is even more important to intervene to decrease stigmatization and social suffering arising from this condition,” said Belén Garijo, Member of the Executive Board of Merck at the time of launch.
One of the women the campaign supported in Kenya was 27 year-old Jackeline Mwende from Machakos County, who suffered brutal violence from her husband because of her infertility. He chopped off both of her hands and left major scarring on her face.
Through ‘More Than A Mother’, Jackeline is able to have new opportunities in life to empower her financially and to know her inherent worth beyond her child-bearing capabilities with the ‘Empowering Berna’ program.
“[The] initiative will provide Mwende with a monthly income of $250 , then will establish a business for her in which she will be able to generate a sustainable monthly income of not less than $250. In addition she will get the needed physical and physiological rehabilitation to enable her to support herself and stand on her own two feet despite the challenge of her brutal disability that was caused by the stigma of infertility – even though her husband is the one who was found with the infertility problem, yet she is still the one who bore the devastating consequences of the public stigma associated with it,” said Rasha Kelej, the Chief Social Officer of Merck Healthcare.
“Society, government and all stakeholders need to continue to join hands with Merck in their campaign to encourage the acceptance people live with infertility because the stigma associated with infertility puts pressure on them to a point where they do crazy and criminal things. We need to know that it’s a shared responsibility, not just for the couple but for the society too,” added Hon. Joyce Lay, Member of Parliament and the Ambassador for ‘Merck More than a Mother’ in Kenya.
According to the World Health Organization, higher levels of non-genetic and preventable causes of infertility are found in the developing world due to issues such as poor nutrition, STDs, consequences of female genital mutilation, unsafe abortions, exposure to smoking and other environmental pollutants.
In Nigeria, the campaign was championed by first lady Aisha Buhari as well as the governors wives, who all vow to do their part in raising awareness, making healthcare and education more accessible, and working with local partners to empower women who are victims of discrimination and violence due to infertility to find a place in society where they are not considered a pariah for an issue that is often beyond their control.
In Nigeria we have been advocating for the end of harmful traditional practices including the stigmatization of women which is prevalent all over the country. Women have not been coming out openly because they are traumatized. With this campaign we will encourage them to speak out and we pledge our support and collaboration,” said Hon. Aisha Alhassan, Nigeria’s Minister of Women Affairs and Social Development.
Rasha Kelej says up to 50% of infertility problems are due to the man, yet this is not commonly known in Africa.
“We can together improve access to education, information, awareness, health care and change of mind-set and culture to stop these women’s suffering,” she said.
With reproductive healthcare spanning more than just access to birth control or safe, legal and regulated abortion, it is incredibly important to see healthcare companies using their vast resources and reach to raise awareness about issues such as infertility. It seems to be a common thread across the world that when it comes to a woman’s body, her reproductive capabilities, and her ability to make autonomous choices, there are a troubling amount of politicians, cultural factors and societal movements that seek to limit her being empowered.
What Merck is doing is breaking down stigma and challenging discriminatory behavior by allowing women’s stories to be at the forefront of their campaign to educate, equip and empower women in Africa. It is this kind of powerful social intervention that can change the entire course of a young woman’s life.
Merck is working to give women back their dignity and worth by stripping away such negative associations around childless women. And while it may seem like a problem that is an entire world away from us in the West, infertility and harmful associations around women and child-bearing absolutely exist in our own backyard. In the US, all we have to do is look at the underlying misogyny, desire for control, and emphasis on child-bearing when it comes to the numerous anti-choice bills being pushed by conservative legislators who seek to ensure women have less and less control over their sexuality and healthcare choices.
The notion that there is something inherently “wrong” with a woman who doesn’t conform to narrow societal and cultural standards immediately make them a victim of potential consequences, which we can see happening in the lives of African women touched by ‘More Than A Mother’.
Women like Helen Phillip, who comes from Northern Nigeria, have had their life turned around by the ‘More Than A Mother’ campaign. Helen shares her story below, detailing how she suffered at the hands of her husband for 20 years due to infertility. To find out more about the campaign, click here.