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Prominent foe of female circumcision wins prestigious $1.4-million Templeton Prize

Dr. Edna Adan Ismail, winner of the 2023 Templeton Prize, sits for a portrait in London.
Dr. Edna Adan Ismail, a nurse-midwife, hospital founder and healthcare advocate, has won the 2023 Templeton Prize.
(Tim Cole / Templeton Prize via AP)
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Edna Adan Ismail, a nurse-midwife, hospital founder and healthcare advocate who for decades has combated female circum- cision and strived to improve women’s healthcare in East Africa, was named Tuesday as winner of the 2023 Templeton Prize, one of the world’s largest annual individual awards.

“Rooted in her Muslim faith, she receives this year’s award in recognition of her extraordinary efforts to harness the power of the sciences to affirm the dignity of women and help them to flourish physically and spiritually,” said the announcement.

Among her achievements: the founding of a hospital and university which have significantly reduced maternal mortality in Somaliland, a breakaway region of northern Somalia.

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The Templeton Prize, valued at nearly $1.4 million, was established in 1973 by philanthropist John Templeton. It honors those “who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.”

Ismail, the first African woman to win the prize, “has used the teachings of her faith, family, and scientific education to improve the health and opportunities of some of the world’s most vulnerable women and girls,” said Heather Templeton Dill, president of the John Templeton Foundation.

“She has employed her many positions of authority to argue passionately that female circumcision is against the teachings of Islam, and deeply harmful to women.”

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Ismail, 85, said she would donate some of her prize money to the U.S.-based Friends of Edna Maternity Hospital, for use in buying new equipment, hiring educators and “training the next generation of healthcare workers that East Africa so desperately needs.”

Ismail was born in 1937 in Hargeisa, the capital of what was then British Somaliland. Her father was a doctor; due to his influence, she was covertly tutored alongside her brothers until she was 15. A scholarship exam, normally reserved for boys, qualified her to study in Britain, where she received an education in nursing and midwifery.

She returned to her homeland as its first medically trained nurse-midwife. According to the prize announcement, she was the first woman to drive a car in her country and the first appointed to a position of political authority as director of the Ministry of Health.

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She later joined the World Health Organization, serving as regional technical officer for maternal and child health from 1987 to 1991 and the WHO representative to Djibouti from 1991 to 1997.

She left her international career to return home with a dream of building a hospital. After newly re-formed Somaliland declared its independence in 1991 — though it remains unrecognized by foreign powers — its government offered her a tract of land previously used as a garbage dump.

She sold her assets to build the hospital and raised more funds worldwide after a profile of her appeared in the New York Times. The Edna Adan Maternity Hospital opened in 2002.

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While Somaliland’s healthcare system was in disarray, the hospital made great strides, dramatically reducing maternal mortality.

Its education program became Edna Adan University in 2010; it has trained more than 4,000 students to become doctors, nurses and other types of health professionals. More than 30,000 babies have been delivered at the hospital, where 80% of the staff and 70% of the students are women.

Despite its lack of international recognition, Somaliland remains self-governing in its territory in northern Somalia.

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Ismail is an outspoken critic of female genital mutilation, a painful and sometimes life-threatening practice performed in some Muslim and non-Muslim societies. When she was 8, her mother subjected her to FGM without the knowledge of her father, who was outraged.

As a practicing midwife early in her career, she was confronted with grievous complications during childbirth from the FGM scarring. After attending a 1976 conference in Sudan at which participants from Muslim countries that practiced FGM spoke about its effects, she was inspired to raise the issue at home.

As a director in Somalia’s Health Ministry, Ismail began to speak out on FGM — initially shocking her audience and attracting threats, but also building widespread interest. She encouraged women to come forward and men to stand up for them.

“Islam forbids female circumcision,” Ismail said in a video filmed for the Templeton Prize. “Every day I’m reliving and remembering, I’m recalling that pain that happened to me when I was 7 or 8 years old. The wounds may heal, but the pain never leaves you.”

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In some countries, women scarred by FGM are obtaining medical treatment and therapy to overcome or reduce trauma that dates to childhood, but Ismail said this was not a priority in Somaliland.

“We are still struggling to find medical treatment for life-threatening childhood diseases, injuries, and assistance to women during childbirth,” she said. “I feel that whatever energy and resources we have should be devoted to help prevent diseases ... rather than reversing the trauma that healthy little girls should not have been subjected to in the first place.”

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While progress has been made, FGM is still practiced in several countries; cases have come to light in Britain, the United States and elsewhere. Ismail’s fight to end FGM continues through her international advocacy and at her hospital.

Previous winners of the Templeton Prize include Mother Teresa of Kolkata in 1973, Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa in 2013 and conservationist Jane Goodall in 2021. The 2022 prize went to physicist Frank Wilczek.

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