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Dr. Hawa Abdi

Fern Holland Award, 2013


Focus Areas

Gender Equality & Women's Rights

Dr. Hawa Abdi was a human rights activist and physician who has protected the lives, health and rights of Somalis – especially women and children – throughout one of the most violent and persistent civil wars that any country has experienced.

After training in Kiev, Dr. Hawa became Somalia’s first female gynecologist in 1971. She opened a clinic on her family’s ancestral land in southern Somalia in 1983, providing free health care to every neighbor that came to her door. Then, in 1991, civil war broke out, and all the institutions of government – including healthcare, and the most basic human security – crumbled away.

“When the war broke out, many people fled from Mogadishu,” Dr. Hawa said. “I welcomed them. It was not planned. It just happened. It became a big camp, which reached 90,000 people.” Her one-room clinic became a hospital, a school and an internally displaced persons camp. “The situation was critical. People were suffering, women were delivering their babies in the road. It was a danger for the mother’s life and the child’s life. So people came to me. I thought I could be useful.”

The challenges and threats she has faced would terrify or overwhelm most ordinary people, but Dr. Hawa’s calm and courageous attitude kept her going. “I felt that I could do something for the people who need me. So I stayed with them.”

In 2010, militant Islamists took over her hospital and held Dr. Hawa and her nurses hostage. Without hesitation, Dr. Hawa stood up to them and refused to be intimidated: when they finally released her, she asked for (and got) a letter of apology.

Glamour magazine heard of her story, and in partnership with Vital Voices named her and her daughters as Women of the Year in 2010. “They are fearless. Their life’s purpose is to be of service to Somali refugees, and their unwavering fortitude in the face of insurmountable obstacles is a testament to the warrior spirit of women,” it said. Contributions poured in to help Dr. Hawa rebuild the hospital, set up a school and get her services back up and running.

Today, some measure of stability is returning to Somalia. Dr. Hawa and her team are rebuilding, with their mission just as critical as ever: to support, heal, teach and protect women and children who often have no one else to turn to. Today, there are two operating theaters, four doctors, 20 nurses, 400 beds, an 800-student school and a Women’s Education Centre at her camp. The medical staff sees over 500 patients a day.

Few of us can imagine facing the challenges Dr. Hawa has seen; we all like to hope that we would have the same fortitude, courage and tenacity in the face of adversity.

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