‘Hooyoda Somaliland’ or ‘the mother of Somaliland’, Dr. Edna Adan Ismail’s lifelong fight for women and girls rights and maternal health has put her on the map as one of the most influential female campaigners on the African continent. Her work as a campaigner, a midwife and a politician has transformed the global women’s rights agenda, especially where it concerns African women and girls, in the process inspiring and empowering millions.
When looking back at Edna’s life, it is pretty difficult to ignore that she has ‘first’ plastered all over her name. From becoming the FIRST Somali trained midwife in the UK in the 1950s to the FIRST Somali female to drive a car. She was Somaliland’s first, First lady, and went on to become the FIRST Somali female to publicly to speak out against FGM. She’s also the FIRST female founder and director of a maternity hospital in Somaliland – in short, she has always been a pioneer. It’s with no doubt then, that she is our FIRST featured Sheroe!
Raised in Hargeisa, the capital of Somaliland, in 1954 Edna was awarded a scholarship to study nursing, midwifery and hospital management in Borough Polytechnic, now London South Bank University. After completing seven years of service, Edna returned to Somaliland as the country’s first and only qualified nurse-midwife.
In 1965, Edna moved once again, this time to Libya to work for the World Health Organisation (WHO) as the Regional Technical Officer for Mother and Child Health. In her fight to safeguard the rights of women and children, Edna became particularly vocal against FGM, and its wide spread prevalence across the African continent. She returned to her home country when her husband at the time, the late Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal became Prime Minister of Somali Republic and later the first President of Somaliland. Edna held many prestigious political posts during her political career including Director at the ministery of health (1977-1979), minister of social affairs and family welfare and foreign minister, which she held until 2006. As the only female to hold prominent posts in government and the only voice for women and girls, Edna was a force to be reckoned with, treasured by young women and an inspiration to generations.
By 1991 the Somaliland that Edna knew and loved had just come through a crippling civil war to claim its independence. However, following the devastation, the country’s health system was completely destroyed and Somaliland had the highest rates of infant mortality worldwide. Alongside infant mortality, FGM continued to be practiced throughout the country. Type III, the most invasive form (read more here), is still widely practiced across Somaliland leaving many mothers vulnerable to maternal mortality due to health complications during childbirth.
Since qualifying as a nurse-midwife, Edna’s lifelong dream has been to train specialised midwifes with the necessary skills to appropriately deliver the children of women who have undergone FGM, as well as to continue the fight against the practice. In 2002 Edna successfully opened the first maternity hospital in Hargeisa. Having sold all her possessions (including her cherished Mercedes!) and using her savings to acquire the government land to build the hospital from scratch, by 2002 the Edna Adan Hospital opened with an operating theater, pharmacy, laboratory and library. Edna also embarked on the process of training 1000 Somaliland women to become qualified midwives and by 2012, opened the Edna Adan University to further the training of nurses, midwifes, laboratory technicians, pharmacologists and public health officers.
Now at 79 years old, Edna continues to be a voice for the voiceless women and girls subjected to gender based violence throughout the world. Through her tireless campaigning, she has brought their stories to the ears of various notable figures including Oprah Winfrey and Hillary Clinton, and has worked to make FGM a global humanitarian issue recognised by the UN as a form of child abuse, gender based violence and a denial of women and girls human rights. For her work Edna’s name was added University of Toledo’s Medical Mission Hall of Fame and she was made an honorary Fellow of both Cardiff University, Clark University and the University of Pretoria, South Africa.
It is not a surprise Edna is called the mother of Somaliland, or even, as the Huffington Post described her, the Muslim Mother Theresea. We had the honour of meeting her at the 2016 African Women’s Diaspora Forum in London where she continued to empower and inspire women to fight the good fight of women and girls’ rights.
May her work continue and may her light never dim.
Words by Rahma Abdilahi (@ssap)
For more information about the Edna Adan Hospital click here