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Education and activism

Edna Adan Ismail is the director and founder of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital and is an activist and pioneer in the struggle for the abolition of female genital mutilation in Somaliland.

Following a long career as a nurse-midwife and serving as the first female Foreign Minister of Somaliland, she turned her attention to training the next generation of healthcare professionals and is a passionate advocate for improving opportunities for women in Somaliland.

We started working with Edna last year to help provide access to books for her students. This month we were lucky enough to speak to her about her work, the people she supports, and her beliefs in a fairer future for all.

“My name is Edna Adan Ismail. I’m a nurse and a midwife by profession. I was privileged to have studied in Great Britain, then returned to my country of Somaliland and taught nursing, delivered babies and, along the way, married the former first president.

When I went back to my country in 1997 after I retired from a long career with WHO, I started building this hospital that I’m in now and opened it in 2002. In 2011, having just one hospital was not enough, so I built a university too. Now we have the Edna Adan University and the Edna Adan Hospital. We share a campus, and we are the only university in Somaliland that also has its own hospital.

I spend my time training people – the next generation of health professionals – because the buildings don’t look after patients, it’s the trained health professionals who do that.

So this has been my work, my responsibility, my passion, and I strongly believe that whatever I want to leave behind for my people, knowledge will be the most valuable gift that I will leave. I’m 83 years old now, I retired 23 years ago, but I love what I’m doing. I feel very blessed that I’m able to do all of these things.

I’m a very tenacious woman, a very stubborn woman, a woman who is very determined to accomplish what I have set myself to accomplish, which is to train health professionals for my country, Somaliland.

Along the way, books have helped me, and Book Aid International has helped me. When I first opened the hospital, the first gift of books were received from them.

In Somaliland, there’s no bookshop I can walk to and just buy books from, and there’s nobody like Book Aid International that we are easily connected with who give us books. Individuals will come and donate one or two books. When I travel to the UK or to the US, if there’s a particular edition of a book that the university needs, then I will buy that book and bring it back, but books are heavy and I can only bring one or two volumes of it.

I’m happy that with Book Aid International, we have been able to work together to give people the opportunity to learn from what others have put in books, learn languages, learn skills, and learn about the world and what’s happening around us.

At the university, all the midwives and 80% of the nurses are female. For the other subjects it’s around 50/50, so, around 70% of our students are female. If it weren’t for the access that they have to good books, I don’t think they would have excelled to the level that they have. In Somaliland, we have a constitution, we have a government and it does give women 100% legal right to be represented and to have a voice, but many women don’t have that, mostly because they do not know that they have that right.

There are things that don’t work 100% the way they should, particularly for women.

The biggest obstacle is illiteracy, and particularly when few in my country have gone to school, women are even fewer. So when women have no education, they depend on somebody else, a husband, a father, a brother, a male relative, who decides for them what they should do, what they should not do, what they should have, and what they cannot have. 

So the constitution is fine, but the reality is that women are still not getting in the position that they should be. But you fight these battles one at a time. When the battles that you have won become sizeable, then people take notice and realise that you have that determination to move forward in the direction that you have decided on. So this is what we do. 

When I became a minister in 2002 I was the only female minister in the government of Somaliland – they didn’t even put a chair for me in the cabinet office because they didn’t think I would come to the meetings; and why not? “Oh but you’re a woman, you don’t want to join these meetings”. But yes I do – I am a cabinet minister, and whatever decisions are being taken by the government, I will be there, and I’m going to voice my opinion.

We are now walking towards the direction in which we wish to go. We have women engineers. We have women nurses and doctors, we have women surgeons, we have the Somali Women Lawyers Association, and a step at a time, we fight these battles. Books are a source of contribution towards this development.

Without books, we cannot develop. Without books, we cannot get trained. Without books, we cannot get out of the situation that we are in.

Take this example; we all need food, but then if you only just give me food I will have to keep asking for more – you’re giving me fish but you’re not teaching me how to fish. So I will always be dependent on you. But why not teach me to fish as well?

We need to know how to take care of health, how to prevent and cure disease and that can only come through knowledge. Knowledge is key, and knowledge comes through education, and education is successful through books.”

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