13 Feb 2011

Doctor Hawa Abdi, Somalia: Anonymous Heroine

Continuing with our focus on anonymous heroines and remembering Doctor Catherine Hemlin, founder of the Fistula Hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia www.hamlinfistula.org today we follow another incredible woman, whose story brings into question how the Nobel Prize for Peace is selected.

Original source: New York Times.

Last year, just after dawn on 5 May, some 750-armed militia surrounded the hospital of Doctor Hawa Abdi.  Mama Hawa, as she is known, heard shots and leaning out of the window saw the large group of armed men.  “Why do you run this hospital?” demanded the militia, “you are old and you are a woman!”

To them it wasn’t important that 63 year old Mama Hawa was one of only a very few properly trained doctors for many kilometres.  Neither that she was running the clinic, the school (with 800 students in only 8 classrooms) and a feeding programme which was helping nearly 10 000 people, the majority of whom were desperate refugees.

The militia held Dr Abdi at gunpoint while plundering and destroying the hospital.  Dr Abdi told them “I am not going to abandon my hospital.  If I die, I will die with my people and with my dignity.  For five days the militia occupied the hospital and kept it closed, during which time dozens of children died from malnutrition.

Then, something extraordinary happened: hundreds of women from the refugee camp situated on Dr Abdi’s land joined together in protest and a flood of condemnation, appealing to Somalis living abroad to help.  This protest ultimately led to the freeing of Mama Hawa and the departure of the militia from the hospital.

The health system in Somalia, after 20 years of war, is practically non-existent.  But Hawa perseveres together with her sisters, who are also doctors, leading, what Eliza Griswold describes as “a city of cure in the brutal chaos of war”.

Hawa obtained a grant to study Genecology in Kiev.  Her dream to become a doctor began when she was 12 years old and witnessed the death of her mother while giving birth.  In 1983 she opened a clinic for women from a room in the family home.  Now the Hawa Abdi Hospital has 400 beds, 3 operating theatres, 6 doctors, 43 nurses, a school and an adult learning centre.  An actual city has grown up around the hospital, with 90 000 refugees surviving in shacks made from sticks and sheets of plastic.  The medical treatment is free, financed by donations.  The refuge has some guards and some rules, one of which is that a man cannot hit his wife.

Dr Abdi and her sisters Amina and Deqa where chosen by the American magazine Glamour as winners of their prize for women of year 2010.  As a result of this they have gained recognition from many people.  With this post we would like to give them ours.

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