Marleen Temmerman has long been recognised as a global authority on the subject of women’s rights and -healthcare, due to her unwavering fight to promote them. Now, she has been elected a brand-new member of the National Academy of Medicine in further recognition of outstanding achievements.
This recognition is no small thing. The National Academy of Medicine is the highest medical institution in the United States. All members of the academy are renowned academics, usually from leading American universities, who have made unique contributions to healthcare.
“Everyone of them does amazing research that also effectively leads to new developments in the healthcare profession,” Professor Emeritus Marleen Temmerman explains. “As a non-American, it’s exceptionally difficult to gain access.” Today, she’s a full member, something she’d never seen coming.
Thirty years ago, in Ghent
Perhaps that’s due to her typical Belgian humility. Because, with everything she’s achieved, it’s obvious she has made a difference, both nationally and internationally. One of the projects she’s most proud of started more than thirty years ago when, as a gynaecologist, she was dedicating herself to working with girls who had been the victim of rape.
Marleen: “I was working at the Department of Gynaecology at the Ghent University Hospital at the time. Our department worked together with general practitioner’s- and women’s associations, but also with the City of Ghent, the province, the police and the justice department to get violence against women on the agenda. We linked this to research questions such as: how often does sexual violence occur, what are the risk factors, how good is the care and support, etc.”
Marleen and her colleagues used this experience as a basis to set up a project to train healthcare providers on how to provide support for victims of sexual violence. “Back then, rape victims were still brought to the ER together with every other kind of patient. They weren’t treated with the necessary empathy.”
The project started at Ghent University Hospital, but eventually grew to a national level: with the support of the government, healthcare providers from all Belgian hospitals got the same kind of training. The project, among others, paved the way for our modern care facilities.
Issue put on world map
In the meantime, Marleen became the first female professor of gynaecology in Belgium in 1992, and also founded the International Centre for Reproductive Health: a multidisciplinary centre within the Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences at Ghent University. Twenty-five years later it has grown into a respected institution, both domestically and abroad.
The centre facilitates research activities and projects that focus on women’s rights in Europe, Africa, Asia and Latin America. Marleen: “We don’t work exclusively with healthcare centres, but also with human rights organisations. We’re a Ghent University research centre in Belgium, but at the same time, we’re also a big NGO with at least a hundred-fifty employees in Kenya and Mozambique. We’re one of the longest-standing organisations active in sexual and reproductive healthcare. We really put the issue on the world map,” she says.
Temmerman created the ICRH and helped it grow into an important international player. “I never would’ve imagined that we’d become so big when we started twenty years ago in Kenya,” she admits in a previous interview.
From the WHO to Kenya
In the meantime, she has been living and working in Kenya for the last seven year. At age 62, after she finished her job as the Head of the Department of Reproductive Health and Research at the WHO, she started working at the Aga Khan Development Network. Clearly, she has no intention of retiring.
There, she combines research with concrete projects. She has been working on teen pregnancies, for example. Marleen: “One out of four girls in Kenya go through a teen pregnancy. We not only provide education to the girls, we also offer support and guidance throughout the pregnancy, test for HIV and make sure they can continue school after giving birth.” Besides this, she also organises healthcare provider training. Her fight has paid off: since starting work in Kenya, the maternal mortality rate has consistently fallen year-over-year.
“This is thanks to the efforts of many people,” Marleen explains. “However, the maternal mortality rate is still quite high. Therefore, it’s important we continue to focus on improving healthcare quality, especially during childbirth. In addition to this, we also need to keep pushing for improved reproductive rights, specifically the woman’s right to choose and the use of contraceptives.”
Now that she’s a member of the National Academy of Medicine, she will be able to create even more of an impact. “To me, it feels like I’ve become part of a family of sorts, made up of the top experts in a whole range of different domains. It allows you to make connections with people and build up networks, which leads to endless possibilities.”
Her primary goal will be to improve healthcare through scientific progress and by giving more people access to healthcare. “This remains the focus of my ambitions, because too many people still lack basic access and that’s a big problem,” Marleen says. Once again, she is putting healthcare and human rights on the world map.
The work that Marleen Temmerman does is made possible, in part, thanks to donations. Five years ago, she herself founded the Ghent University Marleen Temmerman Fund. “By donating to the fund, you support research and education, but also a range of projects in Kenya and Mozambique. “These projects are often run by enthusiastic young people who have taken up the torch, and that makes me very happy,” she exclaims.
Do you want to make a difference in the fight for female healthcare and women’s rights word-wide? Support the Marleen Temmerman Fund and make a donation online.
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