I’ve often used this space to decry injustice and abuse, but as we approach the end of one year and the beginning of another, I realized that what would be most fitting to close out 2010 is a discussion of the individuals who address the darkest realities and transform them into stories of resilience and hope.
TEDWomen debuted just over a week ago, confirming to a global audience an already widespread truth: women have been generating great ideas, and as individuals, we have the capacity to revolutionize industries that promise a better world. At TEDWomen, the first-ever TED conference focused entirely on women, speakers illuminated the potential of women to change the status quo, whether through advocacy, technological innovation, strategic intervention, or leadership. As an audience of these talks, I was not only inspired, but I was impressed by the diversity of practical experiences shared as evidence that the theories presented were not only brilliant and innovative, but successful at producing the intended results.
In looking back at this week, I am reminded of so many awe-inspiring stories of women’s strength and fortitude. And more than anything, I’m reminded of the results they have effected. Somalia continues to be in the news with reports of ongoing conflict and its consequences. Women and girl refugees live in fear of sexual violence and abuse, and the displaced population continues to grow. Capacities to attend to the needs of these populations, from nutrition to financial support to healthcare, are limited, leaving many in situations of poverty.
Last week in DC, I was introduced through TEDWomen to a Somali ob-gyn, Dr. Hawa Abdi. A 63-year-old, Dr. Hawa was one of the few who remained behind after civil war broke out in Somalia in 1991. Having converted her small private practice into a charity hospital, Dr. Hawa runs a 400-bed hospital and shelters nearly 90,000 displaced persons at the facility. The 1300 acres of land surrounding it has grown into a large shelter area for refugees, whom she provides with drinking water, food—as she can secure it—and medical care. As the number of people in her care grew, Dr. Hawa sought multiple avenues to fill basic need gaps, including training formerly nomadic herding families to farm and fish as well as promoting girls education, through a school she started for 850 children. Dr. Hawa also promotes literacy and health for adults, through classes aimed at women.
All this was done in good faith and with great hope. Then, she was challenged in the worst way, her story resembling the story of so many others in Somalia who were faced with threats against the good work they were doing and forced to follow a regime that they did not agree with. Seven hundred and fifty soldiers attacked and seized Dr. Hawa’s hospital in May, killing several staffers, and disrupting food handouts and provision of medical care for thousands of refugees. However, outcry from Somalis at home and throughout the world—especially the refugees in her camp—eventually pushed the Hizb al-Islam party, who originally ordered her to hand over operations, to restore her position at the hospital. There were daily negotiations, and Dr. Hawa held her ground under threat of losing everything she had worked for, and also, her own life.
Eventually, the Hizb al-Islam party gave in, tired of fielding global criticism and pressure. It was reported that the party even issued an apology to Dr. Hawa. In the aftermath, Dr. Hawa has even more on her plate, now tasked with restoring a wrecked hospital, in addition to supporting over 6,000 Somali families who have been displaced from their communities and homes. However, in demonstration of her resilience, Dr. Hawa has already identified partnerships and avenues to secure funding for rebuilding her hospital.
Dr. Hawa is symbolic of the women and men TEDWomen elevates as role models for future prosperity, happiness, and health. She is a woman who has been imbued with courage and conviction. She is an innovator, a great thinker, a fighter—when she has to be—and above all, a woman who chooses to live with dignity and hope. Going forward into the New Year, I will remember my experience at TEDWomen as a confirmation not only that heroes do exist, but that one person can ignite a revolution.