By Heidi G. Frontani:
There are many strong, capable women in Somalia. Dr. Hawa Abdi, Deqo Mohamed, Amina Mohamed, Edna Adan, Ilwad Elman, Fartuun Adan, and Fatima Jibrell are seven such amazing women. The actions of each demonstrate that in adversity there is the opportunity to make a positive difference and even to inspire others. Here are their stories:
Dr. Hawa Abdi’s and her Daughters’ Health Initiatives
As a 12-year-old, Hawa Abdi lost her mother to complications related to childbirth. Determined to understand why her mother had died, young Ms. Abdi studied medicine and, in 1971, obtained a medical degree. The following year, her grandmother died and Dr. Abdi learned that Somali laws prevented female relatives from inheriting land or other possessions. She immediately took up legal studies and, working as a physician during the day and studying law at night, obtained a law degree from Mogadishu’s Somali National University in 1979.
After working in Mogadishu for several years Dr. Abdi opened a small clinic on her farm. Within a few years she was providing healthcare to approximately 800 internally displaced families, and over 4,000 people that were living in makeshift homes neighboring her clinic and a nearby Red Cross feeding station. That number quickly grew. By 2009, around 90,000 people were being assisted by Dr. Abdi and people outside of Somalia were increasingly aware of her amazing work. Swiss associates, inspired by Dr. Abdi, established the Association Suisse Hawa Abdi that enabled Dr. Abdi to open a Women’s Education Center at her clinic. What began as a small clinic has grown into a 400-bed hospital, an accompanying school, and nutrition center. Approximately two million people have been assisted by Dr. Abdi’s facilities since 1983.
Dr. Abdi hasn’t been doing all of this impressive work entirely on her own. She is aided in her work by her daughters Dr. Deqo Mohamed and Dr. Amina Mohamed. The women represent three of ten female doctors in all of Somalia, a country with approximately 200 doctors for a population of over nine million. Dr. Abdi’s daughters grew up working alongside their mother. They were treating wounds and delivering babies while still in high school. In 2010 all three were named Glamour Magazine’s women of the year.
Since 2012, when Dr. Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and recognized by the Women in the World Foundation, approximately 100 staff and 150 volunteers have assisted Dr. Abdi and her daughters. Funds to support the growing enterprise are channeled through the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) which is run by Dr. Abdi and her daughters. Through DHAF the women are able to treat more than 250 patients per day as well as provide scholarships to train female doctors and nurses.
Edna Adan: Founder of a Teaching Hospital
Edna Adan (also known as Edna Adan Ismail) is the daughter of a prominent Somali medical doctor. She was trained as a nurse in the United Kingdom and married Muhammad Haji Ibrahim Egal, a Somali politician who was elected Prime Minister of Somalia in 1967.
In the mid-1980s she began building a hospital in Mogadishu, but the Somali Civil War began and she fled the country. She worked for, and with, the World Health Organization for around a decade before returning to Somalia in the late 1990s.
In 2002, she founded the non-profit Edna Adan University Hospital through which she has trained many healthcare professionals and made notable strides in the fight against maternal mortality. Edna Adan was the only female minister in the Somaliland government until July 2006. She holds an Honorary Doctoral Degree from Clark University in Massachusetts in the USA and is an Honorary Fellow of Cardiff University’s School of Nursing in Wales, in the United Kingdom. Edna Adan also has been featured in the documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide and named among the 100 most influential Africans. She is recognized internationally as a pioneer of women’s health and education.
Ilwad Elman and Fartuun Adan: Promoters of Peace
Ilwad Elman was born in Somalia, raised in Canada, and returned to Somalia in 2009, a time of significant conflict. Her aim was to continue the work of her father, Mr. Elman Ali Ahmed, an activist for peace who was assassinated for his efforts to remove weapons from the hands of Somali children in Mogadishu.
In his honor, Mr. Ahmed’s wife and children created the Elman Peace Centre in Mogadishu. It is the country’s first program to assist the victims of gender-based violence. The Center also provides counseling and health and housing support for women in need.
In the present day Ms. Elman runs a program to rehabilitate child soldiers and integrate them back into society. Through the Elman Peace Centre she provides shelter for the victims of abuse and educates against the stigma and silence surrounding sexual violence. In addition Ms. Elman serves as the Chairperson of the Gender Based Violence Case Management group and the Street Children Task Force, both based in Mogadishu.
In mid-2012 the first TEDx conference was held in Mogadishu and Ms. Elman was a speaker at the event. In 2013, she was featured in the documentary Through the Fire (with Dr. Hawa Abdi and Edna Adan) and in 2014 Ms. Elman was appointed a Young African Leader Initiative (YALI) Fellow by the US Department of State.
Fartuun Abdisalaan Adan was born in 1969. She married at age 18 and raised three daughters in Mogadishu. In the late 1980s, her husband Elman had a successful electronics business in the city, but the country was locked in conflict and many unemployed teens had joined local militias, fighting as child soldiers. Ms. Adan’s husband began to provide support for the child soldiers first by retraining them and later formally establishing the Elman Peace Center. In 1996, a warlord took exception to Elman’s efforts to get child soldiers to leave militias and obtain regular jobs and ordered Elman killed. With his death, Elman’s extended family took over the running of the Peace Center, and Ms. Adan was left with nothing. As a refugee and widow without means, Ms. Adan fled to Canada with her daughters.
She later returned to Mogadishu to take over the running of the Elman Peace Center and renamed it The Elman Peace and Human Rights Center. With so many child soldiers, there was strong need for the Center’s services. Using funds obtained from UNICEF, Ms. Adan was able to begin educating former child soldiers, give them job training, and integrate them back into society as teachers, electricians, and mechanics. As violence continued and even escalated to include widespread rape, Ms. Adan became a founder of Sister Somalia, a new agency that provides counseling, financial support, and relocation to safer housing for victims of gender based violence.
Ms. Adan has advocated for her people beyond her country’s borders. Lobbying in partnership with Oxfam, she has addressed the African Union, met with representative of the European Union and spoken with UK Prime Minister David Cameron. In February 2015, Ms. Adan organized One Billion Rising in Somalia, a global initiative to end violence against women.
Fatima Jibrell’s Environmental Initiatives
Fatima Jama Jibrell was born in 1947. Due to the efforts of her mother, Ms. Jibrell was able to attend school. As a young woman she married, Abdulrahman Mohamoud Ali, a diplomat. In 1981 Mr. Ali was transferred to the USA where the couple engaged in activism and humanitarian work and Ms. Jibrell earned her Master’s in Social Work.
In 1991, unrest in Somalia prompted Ms. Jibrell, her husband and some friends to found the organization ‘Horn Relief’ to support peace through youth leadership and environmental initiatives. Ms. Jibrell also co-founded the Resource Management Somali Network in 1996. It is the only cross-clan, cross-regional environmental organization in Somalia.
Ms. Jibrell environmental successes took off in 2000 when she convinced the regional government in northeastern Somalia to save old-growth acacia trees by creating a ban on charcoal made from them and began promotion of the use of solar cookers domestically. At the time, charcoal was Somalia’s major export after livestock. For her excellent work Ms. Jibrell was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize in 2002.
In 2004, Ms. Jibrell co-founded Sun Fire Cooking and through the donation of 950 solar cookers created the world’s first solar cooking village, Bender Bayla. Ms. Jibrell has written and co-produced Charcoal Traffic, a short award-winning film about Somalia’s charcoal crisis and is the co-author of the book Peace and Milk: Scenes of Northern Somalia (2011). She is the recipient of a 2008 National Geographic Society/Buffett Award for Leadership in Conservation.
Horn Relief began providing assistance to communities in Kenya and South Sudan in 2010 and 2011. In 2012, Horn Relief changed its name to African Development Solutions (ADESO) to reflect the organization’s work beyond the Horn of Africa. By late 2014, ADESO’s cash for work program had positively impacted over 120,000 people and their direct cash grants had benefited 580,466 (most in emergency situations). For these and her other successful projects, in 2014, Fatima Jibrell became the first Somali, male or female, to win the United Nation’s top environmental accolade, the Champion of the Earth award.
These strong Somali women are making a positive difference. All are assisting those in need and advocating for a better future. The projects that Dr. Hawa Abdi, Deqo Mohamed, Amina Mohamed, Edna Adan, Ilwad Elman, Fartuun Adan, and Fatima Jibrell have undertaken reflect a long-term commitment to the Somali people and a love for their country. Their stories demonstrate the importance of seeing what is possible even in difficult situations, as well as that effective aid to African countries often comes from within.
Heidi G. Frontani is a Professor of Geography at Elon University in the USA. She has taught classroom-based and study travel courses in the USA, UK, China, Ghana, and Kenya, where she was a Fulbright Scholar. She has numerous peer-reviewed articles on development and the social aspects of natural resource management near wildlife parks. Her most recent research interests include sustainable health sector aid to Africa, aid assessment, and Africans’ effective development initiatives in Africa.