Edna Adan Ismail, a nurse-midwife who is against female genital cutting, has won the Templeton Prize.
Edna Adan Ismail, a nurse-midwife who is against female genital cutting, has won the Templeton Prize. © Images AGN

When 2023 Templeton Prize winner Edna Adan Ismail started working as a nurse and midwife in Somalia in the 1960s, she was shocked by the pain and health problems she saw in patients who had been female genital mutilated.

Her anger grew until 1976, when she went to a health conference in Sudan as the director of Somalia’s Ministry of Health. There, for the first time, she heard Muslim believers publicly condemn FGM.

That message changed Ismail’s life completely.

Ismail, 85, said in an email to Religion News Service, “I doubt I would have had the courage or ability to speak out against FGM if I hadn’t been trained as a nurse and if I hadn’t heard from the medical doctor in the Sudan and the Muslim congregation at the health conference in Khartoum that FGM was against the teachings of Islam.”

Decades later, Ismail is known as a fierce champion who speaks out against FGM because she is Muslim, not because she doesn’t believe in it. Ismail also started Edna Adan University and Edna Adan Hospital. These two places have helped cut the death rate of mothers in Somaliland by up to 75%.

The late investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton set up the Templeton Prize, which comes with a prize of 1.1 million British pounds (more than $1.3 million), to honour people who use scientific progress to answer the most important questions about humanity’s existence and purpose.

Since it started in 1973, Ismail is the fifth woman and the first African woman to win the prize.  The Templeton Foundation says that this award is the largest foreign prize that a single African woman has won.

Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation, said in a press release, “We are thrilled to honour Edna Adan Ismail, a woman who has used the teachings of her faith, the influence of her family, and her education in science to improve the health and opportunities of some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls.”

Ismail was born in 1937 in what was then British Somaliland to a powerful mixed-faith family. Her mother was a pious Catholic, and her father, a well-known Muslim doctor, made sure that she and her brother got a secret education. 

Ismail’s father pushed her to become a nurse, which she loved right away. At first, she wanted to be a surgeon. “When you follow that pregnancy from nothing for months and hear that heartbeat, you hear a life inside another human being, and to hear it cry and breathe, that’s when you feel the power of God,” Ismail said.

Ismail is known for many “firsts.” She was the first Somali woman to get Western training as a nurse, to get a driver’s licence, and to hold a position of government power. Ismail got the courage to talk about FGM when she was in charge of the Ministry of Health in Somalia. This was a taboo subject, even in a clinical setting.

Even though the health risks of FGM are at the centre of Ismail’s campaign against it, the problem is also very close to her heart. Her mother made her have the surgery when she was eight years old, while her father was out of town. When he got back, he was very angry. She told RNS that her father’s anger when he found out that she had been cut while he was out of town made her realise that what had happened to her was wrong.

When Ismail started speaking out against FGM in the mid-1970s, she found that it went against the teachings of all world faiths, including Islam. Not everyone agreed, though. She got death threats, and even her family told her to drop the matter because they thought it was “indecent.” But Ismail kept fighting for the cause. In the 1980s, when a civil war broke out in Somalia, she became a consultant for the World Health Organisation. She played a key role in making FGM illegal in Djibouti because of this work.

After Somaliland was reformed, it declared independence in 1991, but the rest of the world still doesn’t recognise it. Ismail gave up her job to build a hospital in her home country, where health services had been destroyed during the war.

Ismail sold her property and got money from other places to start the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in 2002. It was built on the site of an old dump and execution ground, which the government gave to Ismail. In 2010, Edna Adan University was added. It has taught more than 4,000 health care workers and public health professionals who now help people all over East Africa. 70% of the students at the university and 80% of the staff at the hospital are women.

Practitioners at the hospital are still fighting against FGM, which has been done to more than 200 million women and girls living today. They do this by taking care of patients and giving educational materials to locals and religious leaders. Ismail says that everyone, not just women, must speak out against FGM. He has also asked religious leaders to see how important this problem is.

“Religious leaders need to take a stronger stand and speak up more loudly to protect little girls from cruel physical harm, pain, and suffering that isn’t necessary,” she told RNS.

Ismail said she would use the Templeton prize money to make a “major contribution” to the hospital by buying medical equipment, hiring experts, and making it bigger. In the autumn of this year, she will give the Templeton Prize speech in London. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Mother Teresa, Francis Collins, and Billy Graham are some of the 52 people who have won the prize.

Ismail told RNS that she thinks the university and hospital that were named after her will be around long after she is gone. Her hope is that it will help everyone who needs it, especially the poor, and that it “will continue to work and grow even after I’m gone.”

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