Former Somaliland foreign minister Dr Edna Adan Ismail is the winner of the 2023 Templeton Prize
Dr Edna, a nurse-midwife, hospital founder, and healthcare advocate has worked courageously to change cultural, religious, and medical norms surrounding women’s health in East Africa, improving the lives of thousands of women and girls in the region and beyond.
Drawing from the resources of 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. Her many achievements include the founding of the Edna Adan University and Edna Adan Hospital, which has significantly reduced maternal mortality in Somaliland, and her tireless campaign to end female genital mutilation (FGM) around the world.
Like Mother Teresa, who received the first Templeton Prize fifty years ago in 1973, Edna has dedicated herself to helping a community that did not have adequate medical care, thereby achieving a global impact.
This year’s award is believed to be the largest international prize ever given to an individual African woman.
“Driven by a passionate belief in women’s innate dignity and divine-given potential, she has enacted a transformation of female health in her native land. Drawing on the doctrines of the Muslim faith, she has employed her positions of authority to argue passionately that, despite what some have believed, female circumcision is against the teachings of Islam, and deeply harmful to women.”
Dill added: “Over the last 50 years, the Templeton Prize has celebrated winners of many different faiths, fields, and nationalities—and this year we are proud to award our first prize to an African woman.”
The Templeton Prize, valued at £1.1 million GBP, is one of the world’s largest annual individual awards. Established by the late global investor and philanthropist Sir John Templeton, it is given to honor those who harness the power of the sciences to explore the deepest questions of the universe and humankind’s place and purpose within it.
“I feel blessed and honored to receive this award, which will enable me to make a major contribution to the U.S.-based Friends of Edna Maternity Hospital,” said Edna Adan Ismail, 85. “These funds will be used to support the hospital in carrying out its essential work, such as obtaining medical equipment, hiring expert educators, enabling expansion to serve more patients, and to continue training the next generation of healthcare workers that East Africa so desperately needs.”
“This hospital,” she added, “has given life to our country.”
Edna Adan Ismail was born in 1937 in Hargeisa, the capital of what was then British Somaliland, to a prominent family. Her father was a doctor often described as the father of medical care in the country, and her mother was the daughter of the postmaster general. Thanks to her father Adan Ismail’s forward-thinking values, she was covertly tutored alongside her brother until she was 15 and then went to a new school for girls. A scholarship exam, also normally reserved for boys, qualified her to study in the United Kingdom—the first Somali girl to do so—where she received an education in nursing and midwifery at the Borough Polytechnic.
As a girl, she loved shadowing her father in his surgery and thought to become a surgical nurse, but he encouraged her to look into midwifery, where the need was greatest. The most important lesson she absorbed from him was compassion, she later recalled. One of his favorite expressions was “if you cannot do it with your heart, your hands will never do it.” She returned in 1961 to her homeland as its first professionally trained nurse-midwife. She was also the first woman to drive a car in her country and the first to be appointed to a position of political authority as director in the Ministry of Health. She was the first lady of Somalia, as the wife of Mohamed Haji Ibrahim Egal, Prime Minister of a united Somalia in the late 1960s.
Following the outbreak of civil war in Somalia, she joined the World Health Organization as an advisor. She was the regional technical officer for maternal and child health from 1987 to 1991 and WHO representative to Djibouti from 1991 to 1997. She decided to leave her high-profile international career to return home and fulfill an ambitious dream: to build a hospital from the ground up.
After the newly re-formed Somaliland declared its independence in 1991—though it remains unrecognized by foreign powers to this day—its government offered her land to realize this vision: a little piece of land that had previously been used as an execution ground and garbage dump.
Inauspicious as this was—“an ulcer in the center of town,” she called it—the site was proximate to the slums where Edna’s hoped-for patients lived, and so she took it. She sold all of her own assets and belongings to build the hospital, and raised more funding from around the world after a profile of her appeared in The New York Times. With the opening of the Edna Adan Maternity Hospital in 2002, the miserable land it stood on was transformed. “Now I live in it. I wouldn’t be anywhere else in the world,” she said in a 2012 interview with ABC News. “That’s my home, my hospital, that’s where I hope to spend whatever days God gives me.”
While Somaliland’s healthcare system collapsed in the aftermath of war, the hospital made great strides, reducing the maternal mortality rate by up to 75 percent. In addition to providing patient care to a high-risk population, the hospital also started training nurses even before it opened. The education program expanded to become the Edna Adan University in 2010, which has trained more than 4,000 students to become doctors, nurses, midwives, dentists, surgeons, pharmacists, lab technicians, anesthetists, and public health professionals. Its graduates go on to serve communities across East Africa. Over 30,000 babies have been safely delivered at the hospital, at which 80 percent of the staff and 70 percent of the student body is female.
Meanwhile, Edna also served as the first and only female cabinet member in 2002 as Minister of Social Affairs. From 2003 to 2006, she served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs. In spite of its lack of international recognition, Somaliland remains self-governing and administers a democratic system in its territory in northern Somalia.
Edna is an outspoken critic of female genital mutilation (FGM), a painful, disfiguring, and life-threatening practice performed in some non-Muslim and Muslim societies, including her own. When she was eight, her mother subjected Edna to FGM without her father’s knowledge. His outraged reaction “planted the seeds of my sense of injustice, and started the embryo that led me much later to act,” she said in an interview with the Berkley Center at Georgetown University. As a practicing midwife early in her career, she was confronted with the grievous complications during childbirth from the scarring. After visiting a 1976 conference in Sudan at which participants from Muslim countries that also practiced FGM spoke openly about its effects, she was inspired to take up the issue at home. Later that year, as a director in Somalia’s health ministry, she began to speak out on FGM—at first shocking her audience and attracting threats, but also building widespread interest and a movement. She was instrumental in Djibouti’s passage of a law against it. After her ex-husband became president of the breakaway republic of Somaliland in 1993, he became an ally in the effort.
Education is more important than legislation in opposing FGM, she stresses, because passing a law that no one intends to obey simply forces the practice underground. Edna has patiently and energetically encouraged women to come forward, men to stand up for them, cultural discussions to be had at every level, and the decoupling of FGM from faithful Islamic practice.
“Islam does not accept, Islam forbids female circumcision. It is a moral issue, a moral obligation. It is a responsibility. God has shown me this,” said Edna in the biographical film A Beacon of Hope for Women’s Health & Dignity, produced in honor of the Templeton Prize. “Every day I’m reliving and remembering, I’m recalling that pain that happened to me when I was seven or eight years old. The wounds may heal but the pain never leaves you.”
Raised in a multifaith household, with a Catholic mother and Muslim father, she has described her religious views as rooted in a sense of action.
“For me religion is not only about rituals, but also about how you live your religion. It is about kindness and charity, living a clean and honest life. I live my religion through my acts, through the way I work with poor people, students, patients, and colleagues,” she said. “Being true to any religion is about how you live, how you respect the rules of God, how you live with others. It is a respect that safeguards others, that respects life and the property and dignity of others. It is doing unto others what you would have them do unto you. It is about going that extra mile to help others and to love them.”
While much progress has been made, FGM continues to be practiced in several countries, and has spread overseas as populations have migrated to the United Kingdom, United States, and other nations. Edna continues to educate people on the grave health harms FGM inflicts on women and girls.
Her fight to end FGM continues both through her international advocacy and at her hospital where they care for complications caused by the procedure and lead the effort against the practice using Somali-language materials to reach the local population and religious leaders. In addition, every student who applies to study in her programs must commit to joining the fight against FGM. Thankfully Edna is no longer a lonely voice in this fight as the WHO, United Nations Population Fund, and UNICEF have joined forces to help accelerate the rejection of FGM.
“Edna Adan Ismail is a beacon of hope and an inspiration for all who care deeply about the health of women and girls around the world,” said Diane Lane, actress and activist who appeared with Edna in the 2012 documentary Half the Sky, in a statement for the Templeton Prize.
Lane added: “Her commitment to the highest moral and scientific standards are what make her such an exemplary winner of the Templeton Prize. For decades, Edna has been a force of female empowerment and cultural transformation that I was grateful to witness firsthand visiting her Somaliland in 2011. Her hopeful attitude and commanding sense of compassion are an inspiration, as her countless patients, students, and admirers can attest. I am so happy Edna’s devotion to women and their families is being honored in this unique and prestigious way.”
Nicholas Kristof, columnist for The New York Times, wrote of Edna in a letter of commendation for the Templeton Prize: “She’s bringing modern medicine, the latest science of prevention and a fundamental emphasis on gender equity to Somaliland, and it’s making a huge difference.” He added: “She is bringing science in a truly lifesaving way to one of the world’s poorest countries, while tackling culture and religion in deeply sensitive and effective ways—and also serving as an extraordinary role model.”
Edna’s awards and recognitions include: Officer of the French Legion d’Honneur and a Commandeur Dans l’Ordre National du 27 Juin, Djibouti; the Medical Mission Hall of Fame, University of Toledo, Ohio; honorary doctorates from Clark University in Massachusetts and the University of Pennsylvania; honorary fellow of Cardiff University School of Nursing in Wales; the Chancellor’s Gold Medal from the University of Pretoria; the Renfield Foundation Award for Global Women’s Health; an honorary doctorate from London South Bank University (formerly Borough Polytechnic, where she was trained); an honorary fellowship by the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists; and short-listed for the European Parliament’s Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought. Edna was featured in the 2012 PBS documentary Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. Her autobiography, A Woman of Firsts, was published in 2019.
As the 2023 Templeton Prize laureate, Edna will participate in a Templeton Prize event this fall in London, where she will deliver the Templeton Prize lecture.
The Templeton Prize winner is chosen following an extensive selection process that mobilizes an anonymous group of expert nominators from a diverse cross-section of fields. Nominees are reviewed by a panel of judges, who include scientists, business leaders, religious leaders, and scholars who represent the many fields of work that the Templeton Prize seeks to honor. Judges rank nominees according to a range of criteria before scores are calculated for a winner.
This year’s nine judges are Georgia M. Dunston, Ph.D., Founder, President, and CEO of Whole Genome Science Foundation; Tsitsi Masiyiwa, philanthropist and social entrepreneur; Baroness Philippa Stroud, Member of the House of Lords, CEO of the Legatum Institute and Chair of the Social Metrics Commission; Dr. France A. Córdova, astrophysicist and 14th director of the National Science Foundation; Anousheh Ansari, CEO of the XPrize Foundation; Rabbi Meir Soloveichik, Ph.D., Director of the Straus Center of Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University; Homa Sabet Tavanger, author and co-founder of the Big Questions Institute and Oneness Lab; Prasad Kaipa, Ph.D., entrepreneur and author; and Timothy P. Shriver, Ph.D., Chairman of the Special Olympics International.
Edna joins a list of 52 Prize recipients including St. Teresa of Kolkata (the inaugural award in 1973) and Archbishop Desmond Tutu (2013). The 2022 Templeton Prize was awarded to theoretical physicist Dr. Frank Wilczek. Preceding him was ethologist and conservationist Dr. Jane Goodall. Other humanitarians who have won the Prize include Dame Cicely Saunders, a nurse and the pioneer of the hospice movement, and Chiara Lubich, creator of the Focolare movement in Italy.