If there was ever a book written that described women of conviction and valor from the continent of Africa, it would tell the story of a Somali doctor who dared to follow a path less taken – one that led to the use of her esteemed qualifications to assist vulnerable populations around the world, particularly in her home country. This is Dr. Hawa Abdi’s story. Of course there is so much more to it, but it takes only but a few words to describe her legacy.
Born in the late forties, Abdi grew up in a wealthy family in Mogadishu, Somalia and received the opportunity to attend primary and secondary school, before she moved to Ukraine to study medicine at Kiev University. Being the woman of purpose and mission, she subsequently attended Mogadishu’s Somali National University to study law. Abdi is recognized as Somalia’s first female Obstetrician and Gynecologist, but she didn’t retire to a life of a conventional physician as society prescribes. For Abdi, her story really began right after she completed her education.
In 1983, she opened a one-room clinic that offered free but good obstetric services to women in rural areas. The civil war in the nineties did a lot to destabilize the country and destroy the limited infrastructure in place, but Abdi stood her ground and spent close to three decades providing a safe place for displaced populations. Women and their families traveled several miles to see “Mama Hawa”, as she was fondly called, and what started as a free standing clinic steadily grew into a 400 bed hospital. She turned the land on which her hospital was built to a refugee site where over 90,000 displaced individuals received access to free healthcare, education and proper sanitation. But of course you know the good old saying “If you have haters, you must be doing something right”. In true form, Somali militants laid siege to the camp and attempted to shut her activities down several times, which ultimately led Abdi to put a hold on the provision of services until the opposition permanently vacated the site.
Abdi is recognized as an international leader and was nominated for the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize for her work. She also received the John Jay Medal for Justice in recognition of her dedication to the cause of justice as well as the Women of Impact Award from the Women in the World Association (WITW). More recently, she was the recipient of the 2014 Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award which recognizes men and women who have demonstrated an achievement to freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom from want and freedom from fear.
Along with her daughters, Abdi established and currently runs The Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF), whose mission is to create access to basic human rights in Somalia through building sustainable institutions in healthcare, education, agriculture and social entrepreneurship.
Image: Marc Bryan-Brown