Marleen Temmerman – Belguim
Interview by Lisa Chuma
Give us your ‘elevator pitch’ – a snapshot of who you are, what you do for a living, and how we should ‘know’ you.
I am a hard-working obstetrician-gynaecologist, researcher, politician (Socialist Party senator), and mother of a 23-year-old son. As a fierce advocate for women’s (reproductive) rights, I do everything I can in all my professional fields to reduce the burden on women and children worldwide. I am referred to as ‘Mama Daktari’, ‘Madam Doctor’ in Swahili, as the founding head of the ICRH, the International Center For Reproductive Health, an internationally renowned organisation when it comes to sexual and reproductive health and rights research, projects and policy-making, with affiliations in Kenya, Mozambique, and several other African countries, as well as Europe and China, among other places.
What is your personal motto?
‘Think Globally, Act Locally’, or ‘When you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, go together.’
What advice would you give to other women who want to do what you do or want to start a business?
Do not focus on the male-female stereotype. Doing business is not about being a woman or a man, it’s about working hard, engagement, dedication and obtaining results in the most effective way, whether these ways are so-called masculine or feminine. Be faithful to yourself, but be pragmatic, and don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! Respect for collaborators is key!
What is your take on ‘unity amongst women’?
I am a feminist, of course I am, and every woman should be – and men should as well! I aim for unity among women to battle not against men, but together with men to eradicate the injustice done to women and strive for equality between women and men around the world. Where the (unfair) battle between the sexes is the problem, it surely cannot be the solution.
Can you tell us about women in your life who have played an important role and what roles they played?
In the first place, my mother. Even if she didn’t always approve of the things I wanted to do, she’s never confronted me with unbearable choices and eventually supported me. She’s still a point of reference; I know that whenever I’m in the newspapers, on the radio or on television, she has read, heard and seen me. She is the first one I ask whether it was good or not. I guess she lies sometimes to make me feel better…
At other times accidental encounters leave their marks. As it did with Graça Machel. She has been a real role model. She was Minister for Education in Mozambique and twice a first lady, first as the wife of Samora Machel, president of Mozambique, and later as Mrs Nelson Mandela. She fights for the rights of children and against HIV/AIDS in South Africa. I believe, as Graça Machel does, that you can put things into motion through politics. That’s why I’m engaged in politics as a senator in the Belgian Parliament, putting health, international cooperation and development, ethics and human rights on the agenda.
What is the most rewarding thing you have done for other women?
For this question I go back in time, to when I started working in the Pumwani hospital in Kenya, Nairobi, a busy maternity clinic with 80 to 100 deliveries a day and substandard health care facilities with shortages of key equipment and supplies. Since the eighties, the standards have improved a lot to the point that we now have adequate tools, skilled personnel and acceptable hosting facilities for the mothers (to be). I am well aware that this is a joint effort of many persons, but it is really rewarding for me that I have been part of the solution to make such an important moment in a woman’s life a comfortable and a healthy event for many Kenyan women and their babies.
Which person has had the biggest influence in your life so far?
Besides my family, my husband and my son, that must be Peter Piot, the former director of UNAIDS, for he invited me to lead a HIV/AIDS project in Kenya. The project researched the influence of HIV/AIDS on pregnancy and brought me to the hospital in the slums of Nairobi. Kenya has been a big turning point in my life. All the choices I had made in my life kind of culminated through the the things I experienced there and through the contact with Peter Piot. It was a childhood dream come true and the making of a vision of life for the following years and decades to come. Leaving your roots, as I did for five years, changes a person, in fact everyone should do it. It makes you conscious of your own luck and the burden of geography. The place you are born in determines a great deal the chances you are given in life. So for me it’s natural that the ones who have been offered the greatest chances strive for better lives for the ones who have got none.
What is the best piece of advice you have been given?
When I was a child, my father always cited a rhyme whenever he saw us wasting our time. In English it can best be translated to “The devil finds work for idle hands.” That piece of advice for me has become a way of life and is probably the reason why I’m so industrious and have accomplished some of the goals I have set out so far.
Another, more practical piece of advice which I learned over the years and in my turn teach other people is: never react directly to something that makes you angry. Anger is an emotion and emotion is not always a good advisor. For example, if you get an email, whether professional or not, that really upsets you, wait 24 hours to answer. You will see that solutions are found much more easily when useless, hard words haven’t been said and written.
Besides your daily work, what are you passionate about?
One could say that my passion is my daily work. That is indeed so, but there are other things that contribute to my happiness, because that’s what passions are meant to do, aren’t they? I’m passionate about my family, my son and my husband. I am not saying that because it is expected of a woman to say it, especially the ones with a career, but because it is reality. It is a core of mutual respect, interaction and unconditional love without which my perception of the world would be completely different.
What question should I have asked, that I didn’t? (This is your opportunity to answer the question no one ever asks!)
Interviewers tend never to ask health scientists questions about the economy. Instead it is common for economists to influence, sometimes with massive effects, health through their policies. It shows that economy and health are unmistakably intertwined. The reforms proposed today to overcome the banking, financial and Euro criseis are very negative for the health sector and the welfare state in general. Health care is being privatised and the out-of-pocket contribution to health is increasing rapidly. This hinders easy access to health for the lower incomes. Those are typical negative outcomes of neoliberal strategy. I am convinced that the crisis today shows that neoliberal capitalism has failed and yet the proposed solutions are more of the same. Will the world leaders today have the audacity to construct new kinds of economic systems that leave the welfare state intact and produce a more honest distribution of wealth throughout the world? If they don’t succeed, all efforts, including mine, to make the world a better place are bound to fail.
Lisa Chuma is an inspirational Speaker for Schools in the UK and the founder (Editor-in-Chief) of Inspirational Woman Magazine. Lisa is keen to make a positive impact in the world and see women come together in unity worldwide. Her desire is for women to realise that they are very important in their own way, which makes us all unique. If we accept that, we can become a stronger community because we will have different things to offer. Lisa is very passionate about being a positive in␣uence and making a positive impact in people’s lives. She has made it her responsibility to better women’s relationships by them helping each other, standing together, supporting each other and encouraging them to complete each other rather than compete.