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Dr Hawa Abdi, human rights champion, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, 'Somali hero,' passes away at 73

Wednesday August 5, 2020

Photo/( /Grand Central Publishing)

Mogadishu (HOL) - Dr Hawa Abdi Dhiblawe, prominent human rights activist, founder and chairperson of the Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation and one of Somalia's first female obstetricians has passed away in Mogadishu. She was 73.

She died Wednesday morning, but the circumstances surrounding her death remain unestablished at the moment.

Dr Abdi affectionately referred to as the Mother Theresa of Somalia, was a Nobel Peace Prize nominee. Her work is credited for saving the lives of thousands during some of Somalia's darkest moments. She cared for the wounded, the sick - often for free - at a hospital, she established on her family's land in 1983. What began as a humble one-room operation would eventually care for close to 90,000 people during Somalia's catastrophic drought in 2011.

While caring for her patients, Dr Abdi famously faced down nearly 750 militants from Hizbul Islam who laid siege to her compound in 2011. She heroically told them at the time, "I'm not leaving my hospital. If I die, I will die with my people and my dignity.' She yelled at the young gunmen, "You are young, and you are a man, but what have you done for your society?". The militants were met with fierce resistance from the locals who gathered around the hospital demanding to see Dr Hawa and mounting international pressure. After a week, the second-in-command came to Dr Hawa with a signed apology letter written in both Somali and English.

When the civil war broke out in 1991, Dr Abdi's grandmother implored her to stay behind and use her skills to assist the most vulnerable. She witnessed firsthand the devastation that occurred in Somalia early after the collapse of the government.

"During those dark days of 1992, starvation set in, and I sold my family's gold to buy enough food to sustain the vulnerable children and give the gravediggers enough strength to work. Even when we were burying 50 people per day, I was still able to provide free land, security, and medical treatment. We clung to one another, and we survived, but the fighting continued. Now, again, we see famine—not caused by drought alone, but by the conflict that continues to ravage Somalia," she said in an interview.

Dr Hawa Abdi was born in Mogadishu in 1947 and attended local elementary, intermediate and secondary academies. 

In 1964 she travelled to the Kiev to study gynaecological medicine with the help of a Soviet scholarship. In 1971, she began her medical career as one of Somalia's first female gynaecologists working in Mogadishu's most prominent hospital. She quickly recognized the lack of resources for a hospital birth outside the capital. She decided in 1983 to open her clinic known as the Rural Health Development Organisation (RHDO) in the outskirts of Mogadishu. She focused primarily on the treatment of women from non-urban areas.

Dr Hawa told the New York Times that her dream to become a doctor began when she was 12 after her mother died during childbirth.

She was also an author; her moving memoir,  Keeping Hope Alive: How One Somali Woman Changed 90,000 lives was published in 2013 and was well-reviewed.

Her unwavering commitment to the downtrodden has earned her recognition worldwide. She and her daughters whom Glamour Magazine named Women of the Year in 2010 and described as 'Saints of Somalia' have been running the clinic and Dr Hawa Abdi Foundation. She was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2012. In that same year, she was honoured with the BET's Social Humanitarian Award, Women of Impact Award from the WITW Foundation, and the John Jay Medal for Justice. In 2014, she received the Medal from Want award from the Roosevelt Foundation. She was awarded the 2013 Vital Voices' Women of the Year Award. In 2015, she was the recipient of the Pilosio Building Peace Award. Most recently, she was honoured by Harvard University with an honorary Doctors of Law degree in May 2017.

A Family Affair: From left: Dr. Amina Mohamed, Dr. Hawa Abdi and Dr. Deqo Mohamed, photographed during a business trip to Geneva, Switzerland, on September 18, 2010. Hair and makeup: Mitzi for Visage Management

Hiiraan Online recognized Dr Hawa for her selfless campaign to treat disenfranchised women and bolster access to medical services in Somalia with our 'Person of the Year' award in 2007.

"Everyone in the Dr Hawa Abdi hospital is a Somali—no clan affiliation is allowed here. If someone brings such affiliation, he or she will be expelled from here," she told Hiiraan Online at the time.

Dr Hawa Abdi is survived by her two daughters, Dr Deqo Mohamed and Dr Amina Mohamed, who followed in their mother's footsteps and worked alongside Dr Hawa at their hospital.

Dr Hawa's legacy will live on through their work and the Hawa Abdi Village, a sprawling complex that includes the 400-bed hospital, a primary school, a women's education centre. The village also holds agriculture programs that can provide preventative defence against famine - a scourge that Dr Abdi has fought most of her career valiantly.


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