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British Science Week Launches - Science and Society

Hidden Figures – Edna Adan Ismail

From the women’s workers strike in Spain, to the collective social media uproar of #MeToo, the media has been awash with calls to end the patriarchy. What if this year’s International Women’s Day was the tipping point for gender equality in the 21st Century?

In celebration of the Suffragettes 100 year anniversary and the new found voices of women sharing their experiences around the world, we wanted to uncover more stories of heroism in the history of feminism. Our ‘Hidden Figures’ series will celebrate lesser known individuals in male dominated industries.

Today we begin with Health.

Edna Adan Ismail is one of Somaliland’s most noteworthy figures. She became the first for many things; the first Somali girl to attend school, the first with a scholarship to study in Britain, the country’s first qualified nurse-midwife. If that wasn’t enough she was also the only female minister in the Somaliland government until July 2006.

Given her track record of challenging gender stereotypes it is not surprising that Ismail’s work has led her to become a global advocate for women’s empowerment and ending violence against women. In a country with one of the highest rates of female genital mutilation (98% of women aged 15-49 have undergone the procedure) Ismail was the first to lead controversial campaigns against the practice. The ministry of religious affairs have issued a fatwa on the practise on FGM, making it a punishable offense and stating officially that it has no religious or cultural standing. It is now close to being outlawed in Somaliland.

At the age of 80, Ismail still runs the maternity hospital that she built herself in 2002. Ismail has trained and recruited senior midwives, community midwives, nurses, lab technicians and pharmacists in the hundreds. Over 22,000 babies have been delivered safely.

Without her continued fight for equality and her right to learn, Edna Adan Ismail would not have been able to educate her community and change the lives of so many people in Somaliland, but her advice for women resonates globally:

“Don’t just take it lying down and say, ‘Oh, but I am a woman, I need to accept what comes to me.’ Don’t be fatalistic about your future, your career. Aim for it. Go for it. Fight for it. Campaign for it. Study for it. Compete for it and get it. Otherwise, it’s not going to happen.”