Born in 1937 to a doctor and his wife in British Somaliland, Edna Adan Ismail’s family was held in high regard. As such, Edna benefitted from a primary school education, a comparatively modern privilege the majority of her female peers would never have. Despite such modernity in her upbringing however, Edna’s mother was also determined that her daughter undergo a traditional Somali practice.
At eight years old, and while her father (a doctor) was out of town, Edna was “caught, held down” and her genitals were cut and sewn up with acacia thorns, without any anesthetic.
When her father came back and heard that Edna had been the victim of female genital mutilation (FGM), he was horrified. Edna said “that was the only time I ever saw him with tears in his eyes.” The reaction of her father convinced Edna that what had happened to her was wrong. She would hold fast to this belief. So too, across the span of her career in the medical profession, she held onto the spirit of rebellion born out of the emotional and physical pain FGM had inflicted on her.
“The fight against FGM has been the biggest battle of my life… and every moment of my life has been a battle.”
As a young woman, Edna battled against the rigidity of British Somaliland’s patriarchal education system to become the first Somali woman to study in Britain. When she returned to Somaliland as its first qualified nurse and midwife, she had to fight for 22 months before the state would pay her to work in a government hospital under contract.
It was even a battle for her to hold a driving license, despite having learned to drive in Britain, because she was the first woman to hold a driving license in her country.
Edna worked her way up the ladder of the civil service in what was then Somalia, becoming the first female director of the Ministry of Health. After civil war broke out she was forced to leave and moved to the World Health Organization (WHO), where she worked as the WHO Representative to Djibouti, helping to pass legislation outlawing FGM.
Yet she still did not have the job she craved. She wanted to be director of her own hospital. A hospital where her father would have been proud to work. A hospital that could tackle maternal mortality as the leading cause of death among women of reproductive age in her country – all too often due to a complete lack of prenatal care, or complications from FGM.
“Our women die of causes that no woman in this day and age, when man has reached the moon, no woman should die of.”
In 1997, she retired from the WHO and cashed in her pension. Then she sold her Mercedes-Benz, her jewellery, even her dishwasher, and purchased a piece of land in Hargeisa. The land had formerly been a graveyard, then later a military parade ground, infamous for executions and torture. In 1997 it functioned as a local rubbish dump. But for Edna, this land represented the first concrete step towards fulfilling her lifelong dream of building a hospital in Somaliland.
Edna had just around $300,000 to make her dream hospital a reality, but in her mind she “never had any doubts”. When the money ran out and the hospital still had no roof or equipment, Edna plowed on, and, with the help of donors she had inspired across the U.S.A. and the Somali diaspora, a foundation called ‘Friends of Edna’s Hospital’ was able to raise enough money to help her complete the project.
Edna was 65 years old when she opened Somaliland’s first maternity hospital in 2002.
“Because a problem is difficult, you must deal with it. And because it takes a long time you must stick to it, constantly. That is the way we can bring about change.”
Since opening, the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital has trained 540 midwives and completed 247 fistula repair surgeries. 22,144 babies were delivered in Edna’s hospital between its opening and 31 January 2018, and it is ranked 13th out of 205 hospitals across the African continent. The patients pay what they can afford, women receive counselling against perpetuating the harms of FGM on their daughters, and all who come to the hospital are treated, including for non-maternal and emergency issues. It is a well of life springing from a former valley of death.
Edna, now 81 years old, lives in a small flat above “my home, my hospital” and continues to work vigorously towards cutting maternal mortality and ending FGM – which, in her words, “is simply a matter of will”.