Edna Adan has dedicated her life to building her country’s first maternity hospital, and campaigning against FGM. Now she is looking for new allies in the fight against gender violence
Edna Adan Ismail, the former first lady of Somalia, in front of the maternity hospital she built in Hargeisa, Somaliland. The hospital has since been completed. Photograph: David Gough for the Guardian
Edna Adan has led a life filled with firsts. The 76-year-old was the first woman from Somaliland to study in the UK and the first qualified-nurse midwife in her country, as well as the first female foreign minister and one of the first in the world to speak out publicly about the horrors of female genital mutilation (FGM).
Now she is experiencing another first: a cautious hope that the balance of power is finally tipping in the fight against violence against women and girls, particularly against FGM. But this veteran campaigner knows too well the dangers of over-optimism.
“I wish I could say emphatically that I had real hope now that things were going to change, but we’ve had resolutions before in Cairo, Nairobi, Copenhagen,” says Adan, who has spent her life fighting for women’s rights, even cashing in her World Health Organisation (WHO) pension to build the first maternity hospital in her country. “But I am optimistic now: this is the first time that the British government is fully on board in trying to put a stop to FGM. That makes a big difference.”
She praises Britain – a “strong ally” – for its work on targeting health professionals who carry out the illegal procedure, which involves the partial or complete removal of a girl’s outer sexual organs and can result in lifelong physical and mental complications.
“The fight against FGM has been the biggest battle of my life,” says Adan, “and every moment of my life has been a battle.”
It is no exaggeration. As a young woman, Adan left the autonomous region of Somaliland, a breakaway region north of Somalia that is not recognised by the UN, to study at the London’s South Bank University. She returned in the 60s to find she was the only trained midwife in the country, and it took 22 months for the government to pay her.
“There just wasn’t a salary scale for a woman,” she says. “They could have paid me as a cleaner, but not as someone who ran the entire maternity department. I just refused to leave, refused to back down and eventually they paid me.”
After marrying former president Mohamed Egal, Adan became became first lady of Somaliland and then its first female foreign minister. She had worked for WHO as an expert on nursing for more than a decade and did not want to stop working; instead, she cashed in her pension and sold most of her possessions in order to achieve a lifelong dream – opening a dedicated maternity hospital in her home town of Hargeisa, opting to live in a small flat above the hospital.
The hospital had no staff so Adan recruited 30 trainees, who started their training before the hospital opened. It now has two operating theatres, a laboratory and a training wing, as well as a fully trained
staff that includes two female doctors originally recruited as nurses. Their careers are her greatest source of pride. “They started on my nursing programme as 18-year-olds. I sponsored them through medical school and now they are looking after and healing the sick – nothing can beat that,” says Adan.
Adan – whose life’s work was depicted on film at last week’s Global Summit to End Sexual Violence in Conflict – spoke to the Guardian after launching an appeal to fund operations at her hospital on Humanity Direct.
Asked about the continual personal sacrifices she makes to ensure its survival, she thinks for a moment. “When I first thought about building a hospital, I thought of it as giving and sacrifice, but having trained hundreds of students and having seen thousands of lives saved, I now know that I have gained so much more than I have given,” she says.
“There is nothing to compare to seeing a woman coming in with a fistula and being healed; there is nothing more rewarding than seeing a premature baby who can only survive in an incubator, leave breathing for itself and able to go home. These rewards, they are immeasurable.”
Adan might not be filled with hope but she is heartened that violence against women is slowly making its way up political and media agendas.
“Violence against women and girls has always been there, no country is immune to it, but this collective cruelty against women is at last gaining the attention of the world – such as this tragedy in Nigeria [the kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls in Chibok], where we have seen young girls used as weapons, it has shocked the entire world,” she says. “It is time to say enough is enough. Things are getting better, but not on the ground as quickly as I would like to see.”
Adan is unapologetic in her belief that men must step up to the mark in the fight for gender equality. “Fathers must join this battle. This is happening to their daughters, their mothers. Women have suffered for long enough, it is time for men to play a greater role,” she says. “We need a worldwide movement to make this a central concern, so it is no longer confined to the borders of debate.”