When Jackline Mwende’s story was first told in August last year, it was full of outrage and heartbreak, but it is now a tale of hope, courage & second chances. The 28 year old’s hands were chopped off and her face sustained deep cuts after her husband attacked her for being infertile. However, tests conducted at a hospital in Nairobi revealed that it was her husband with issues of infertility. This is one of the many tragedies that women like Mwende face because of lack of awareness on infertility in African communities; a subject that is talked over in hushed tones because it is considered a curse or taboo.
This tale is however slowly changing due to the work and efforts of Merck, a leading science and technology company, which yesterday announced their commitment to empower Kenyan women through their ‘Merck more than a Mother’ and the start of ‘Merck STEM for Women and Girls’ programs. Mwende now has her own two-bedroomed house and a shop called ‘Zawadi Mini Supermarket’ in Machakos county that earns her a sustainable income and has a new outlook in life, one where her hope has been re-ignited thanks to the efforts of the Merck ‘More than a Mother’ campaign.
Through the initiative, women leaders, healthcare providers and policy makers will seek to raise awareness about infertility prevention and management. This will be inducted by a mission to build fertility care capacity and a decrease in the social suffering and stigmatization of infertile women to achieve a systemic shift in the current norm of gender discrimination in African societies.
Speaking at the event in Nairobi, Belén Garijo, Member of Executive Board and CEO of Merck Healthcare emphasized on the empowerment of women especially those who are unfortunately unable to conceive. She said that through sufficient access to information, health and change of mindset to remove the stigma of infertility, we will be able to bring more women up from the ashes of discrimination and through the work of “Merck More than a Mother”, they will continue supporting this strong message together with their partners and will continue their commitment to improve access to regulated and effective fertility care across the continent.
One of the misconceptions the program seeks to break is the notion that men cannot be infertile. According to studies conducted, over 50% of infertility cases are due to the male factor, but due to the position that the man has in a typical African society, they cannot admit or share the responsibility thus the burden falls on the woman who is then shunned, abused or mistreated just like in the case of Jackline Mwende.
In 2006, over 1,000 infertile women in Kenya, Uganda, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Liberia, Ghana, Central African Republic and Cote D’Ivoire who can no longer be treated have been empowered socially and economically to lead independent and happier lives through the “Empowering Berna” project. The initiative came about as a result of Berna Amullen’s story, a Ugandan woman who suffers from infertility as a result of an untreated STD. She was diagnosed too late and as a result, she was discriminated against and faced a significant amount from her husband. The ‘Empowering Berna’ initiative now helps such women to stand on their own and live lives that tell a story of strength against diversity and most of all hope for women who were once considered not to be real women in the society because of their inability to bear children.
Merck will also inaugurate their initiative ‘STEM for Girls and Women’ program in Africa launched yesterday at the Olympic School where they have equipped their library with a Computer Lab to encourage young girls to study science and technology. Furthermore the winners of UNESCO-MARS awards will act as ambassadors in their respective countries.
The program aims to target and to empower over 7,000 girls and 60 women researchers across Africa in 2017 through various initiatives which include setting up computer libraries in schools similar to the one launched at Olympic School in Kibera, with the UNESCO-MARS research award winners being appointed as ambassadors for the ‘Merck STEM Program’
Chief Social Officer of Merck and the convener of the ‘More Than a Mother’ initiative Rasha Kelej, hopes that these initiatives among the many others that Merck has started will erase the feeling of hopelessness felt when a woman isn’t able to conceive. She believes that through the many transformation stories of Jackline Mwende, Berna and many others, that women will see themselves as more than ‘baby-making machines’ and will rise up to become stronger productive women in society.
Rasha adds by saying that a woman is more than a mother, and initiatives like ‘Empowering Berna’ will prove this every day.