My hospital, the Edna Adna Hospital took a lifetime to be born. The idea of building it has been with me since I was 11 years old, but it had to wait until I retired and had enough means, freedom, and time to build it, so that the we had the resources to help as many women as possible. For years, I held various key positions with the World Health Organization (WHO), and among other responsibilities, advocated for the abolition of harmful traditional practices, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), a harmful form of violence against women performed by in communities around the world. Upon my return, I built the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in Hargeisa, Somaliland, from the ground up and trained the nurses necessary to staff it. It took four years to build and opened in March of 2002.
Since then, we’ve taken great strides to improve the lives of women in our community. In the first 10 years that the hospital was open, we delivered around twelve thousand babies. Over a thousand of those were born through c-section and a good number of them had treatments to control eclampsia, which is the biggest killer in my country. We saw women who traveled four or five days to see us, with the placenta still inside of them - women who we will never understand how they managed to reach us still alive. Some die at our doorstep, some die shortly after admission.
The practice of female genital mutilation (FGM) only further complicates the dangerous health issues we see every day. To reduce gender-based violence around the world, education is key. FGM is done out of a perceived sense of duty. The family thinks they are doing the right thing and that it is a religious duty, but FGM is actually contrary to the teachings of Islam. They believe it is hygienic, which it is not. They believe that it will improve their daughter’s marriageability, which it does not. Along with various other complications,cutting practices obstruct the female reproductive system and interferes with their ability to have children.
When we went back to the drawing board, we found that we had overlooked the major role that men should and must play when addressing this issue. Parents, both mothers and fathers, must join hands to prevent this harmful practice. It cannot remain a “women’s” issue. It is a human issue. It is a family issue. We must incorporate men and ask them to show their strength, show their heroism as heads of the household. Fighting against female genital mutilation should be the role of the men as well as the women.
To ensure that people had the proper training to prevent these problems, we made the hospital a teaching hospital, which not only helps patients, it also trains more people throughout the community skills that save women’s lives. Teaching is one of the most empowering things that one can do for women. If God gives me time, I want to train one thousand midwives to go to rural areas where the women have nothing and there is no one to care for them. While not as common in developed countries, it costs less than one cup of coffee a day to provide a midwife with the appropriate training and the rewards are incalculable. This will save many lives in rural areas where doctors aren’t as common or are too far away in case of a medical emergency. Once trained, the women can go back to their communities, empowered, competent, and vocal. While it would also be a good idea to work with doctors, doctors take a lot more time and money to train and, when their training is complete, they do not want to go out to remote villages. Midwives, on the other hand, are flexible and, more importantly, they are women. Women are strong members of society and act as powerful voices against many of the problems, including gender-based violence, that women face.
My hospital is just a small drop in the ocean of problems that need to be addressed. FGM is still a persistent problem, not only in Somaliland, but also around the world, and hundreds of thousands of mothers die during childbirth every single year. We’ve got our work cut out for us, but if we band together and work hard every single day to get women and girls the care they need, I know that we will have a brighter future not just for women but also for entire families, communities, and countries.
Edna Adan Ismail is the former first lady of Somaliland and a relentless advocate for women's rights. To learn more about her and her hospital, please visit her website.