Dr. Deqo Mohamed
Dr. Deqo Mohamed is the founder and executive director of the Hagarla Institute, which develops sustainable health care systems in Somalia and the surrounding region. As a teenager, Deqo helped her mother, Dr. Hawa Abdi, to deliver babies and save lives in the hospital and displaced-persons camp that their family ran outside of Mogadishu. After Deqo earned her MD in Russia, she served as CEO of the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, which supported the camp, until 2020. Deqo founded a primary and secondary school in the camp and strengthened regional education and health care systems by launching Aspire Africa, a training and mentorship program for teachers in post-conflict zones, and running mobile health clinics throughout rural Somalia. She forged partnerships—including one with Yale University (where Deqo was a 2016 Greenberg World Fellow)—to support her work. Deqo’s other honors include an honorary degree from Chatham University and the African Leadership Network Women Bell Award. Deqo maintains an OB/GYN practice while pursuing her vision for transformed health care systems through Hagarla. Echoing Green (https://fellows.echoinggreen.org/fellow/deqo-mohamed/)
Gender Equality Statistics
Prevalence of severe food insecurity in the adult population (%): Women: 77.3%; Men: 76.3% Maternal mortality ratio: 829 per 100,000 Proportion of women aged 20-24 years who were married or in a union before age 18: 16.8% (before age 15); 35.5% (before age 18) Proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments: 24.4%
Interview with Dr. Deqo Mohamed (24 February 2023)
Have you encountered any barriers or prejudices on your journey to get to where you are today?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
My country is plagued by all kinds of barriers, especially misogyny. Politics, leadership, and even the field of medicine are dominated by men. My mother experienced this firsthand, and so for me, becoming a doctor was a much easier and more acceptable path. However, I still faced the belief that as a woman, I couldn't be a "real" doctor or perform surgeries. Instead, I was encouraged to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology.
Secondly, when I was young, my ambitious mother and father sent me to Russia, where they had received their own education. Despite objections from my community and family, who believed that a 17-year-old should be getting married rather than going abroad, I was determined to pursue my education. Unfortunately, in my country, sending a single girl abroad is often viewed as akin to selling her into prostitution and is seen as a threat to her religion. This same perception existed when my mother went to medical school in Russia in 1964, and it hadn't changed by the time I went to medical school in 1993. Women were not encouraged to seek education or to advocate for themselves, as this was seen as a role reserved only for men.
I attended college in Russia, which was a challenging experience due to my status as a foreigner. During that time, Russia was undergoing turmoil. After leaving Russia, I moved to North Dakota, where I encountered similar difficulties as an African person. However, I noticed a difference in terms of equality in the United States. These experiences, coupled with my life journey, have taught and empowered me as a woman to pursue my goals despite any obstacles. As a person in general, there will always be challenges that can harm you, but in such circumstances it is important to persist in order to achieve your objectives.
What cultural obstacles do women face in Somalia when it comes to attaining leadership positions? How can these obstacles be eliminated in Somalia?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed:
There are many challenges that young women face, such as not having a position to negotiate, which can make their situation difficult. When I returned to my country from the United States in my late twenties, I believed I was ready to be a leader. However, many around me saw me as just a young woman and did not take me seriously. Despite my age, being a single woman was seen as a negative thing, and I was not able to negotiate as a result. Unfortunately, this situation is not uncommon. Single women are often excluded from conversations and told that they cannot sit with men. I have been told things like "You're a piece of meat" and "You can come to this table when you get married." It is frustrating to be seen as a second-class citizen simply because of my gender and marital status.
There is another difficult idea about women in my country: if you are a woman who does not have children, you are not valued. God did not bless me with biological children, but I am happy with my decision to adopt. People often ask me, "Why are you raising someone else's child?" or "Why don't you have your own?" I am not raising my children to have someone who looks like me or to correct my mistakes. That is what many parents do, but it should not be the reason to have children. I am raising these children because I love them, I want to provide a loving home for them, and I want them to feel like I am their mother. This was a personal hardship I faced within my culture.
I am often outspoken. I recall one instance when negotiating about food security, and one person interrupted and asked, "Who's going to marry you?" This was his perception of me due to my outspoken nature. At times, you need to find a way to remain calm and provide a clear response. They become upset with me, but I learned from my mother to respond to them. You must stand your ground, although it can be culturally risky since they may try to undermine you. However, if you continue to do your job, your actions will speak louder than words. By demonstrating your commitment to your community, you will earn their respect even when they disagree with you.
It took me 15 years to gain respect in my community, even though I didn't fit their expectations. I wasn't married at the "right" time, I got married late, and I didn't have children. I was also outspoken as a woman and educated. There is a lot of cultural work that we need to do, and I always speak out now.
Many of my patients feel devastated because they cannot have children. I tell them to consider adoption instead. They shouldn't worry about what the community thinks. There are many kids on the streets who are dying without a family. Why torture yourself? This is the cultural shift that I am trying to educate and promote.
Menopause is an important issue in my country and around the world. In Somalia, women who reach menopause often feel devalued because they are no longer able to produce offspring. This can lead to frustration and a sense of unfulfillment. However, I believe that women should embrace this time in their lives and enjoy it. Let men marry multiple wives if they want, but women should not feel pressured to stay in a marriage where they are not valued. I remember my sister encouraging a woman to leave her unfulfilling marriage, and the woman actually got divorced. Women should have the freedom to live their own lives and pursue their own happiness.
Those who try to maintain our traditions have never seen women in our country doing what we are doing, and that inspires me. It is very challenging. I am not saying it is easy. In fact, in some cases, it results in very difficult situations when you feel like you are battling against traditions that are deeply ingrained in your community and culture. At times, I ask myself, "Should I return to the US? What am I doing here?”
Somalia ranks fourth lowest for gender equality globally. Have you noticed a significant difference in gender equality during your travels to other countries?
For instance, is female genital mutilation more prevalent in Somalia than in other countries?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed:
Female genital mutilation is a prevalent issue in Somalia, and unfortunately, it may also occur in other countries. Although I am not certain about its prevalence in Asia, cases have been found in other African countries, such as Egypt, Sudan, and other countries in West Africa.
It is crucial for people to understand that this practice is deeply ingrained in the culture of these countries. Despite its age-old tradition, female genital mutilation is a dangerous and painful manifestation of gender inequality that still exists in these regions.
As with gender inequality in general, education appears to be the most effective tool for addressing this issue. We must educate the youngest generation. I will not allow my son to sit idly while my daughter does all the work, as our traditional culture dictates. According to this culture, if someone visits my home and sees my son cleaning his room, they might say, "Oh, you shouldn't have him doing that; he's a boy." However, I would respond, "No, he should." Therefore, I believe that the most fundamental work involves raising boys and girls equally, and this is a significant undertaking.
When it comes to politics and business, it is evident that many larger businesses are primarily led by men. If you attend business chamber meetings or other similar events, you will rarely find women business owners in charge of big businesses. In my city, I was the first woman to open a clinic. Women are often relegated to lower positions, such as selling tomatoes in markets. Achieving gender equality is a significant challenge, especially in my country. This is a stark contrast to the United States, where feminism is widely discussed, and women can be found in leadership positions across all sectors, including the Fortune 500, military, and healthcare system. Seeing these women in leadership roles is incredibly inspiring and provides much-needed support for women everywhere.
Vital Voices is an organization that I greatly admire, and I am proud to be a part of its network. Based in Washington D.C., Vital Voices organizes public events that invite amazing women to speak. Attending these events is inspiring and energizing. Seeing women from around the globe come together in D.C. to discuss issues related to empowering themselves is truly remarkable.
What makes this initiative even more beautiful is the immense support that the organizers receive from American society. In Somalia, we have yet to reach that level of support.
Here in Somalia, even women undermine the movement for gender equality. It's not uncommon to hear women say, "You're a bad woman for speaking out," or "You're a bad woman for not staying in your place." It's incredibly sad, but there's a lot of work to be done, and the work must begin with us, Somali women. We must be willing to negotiate for our equality in the same way American women are doing in the U.S. by demanding equal pay and fighting for their right to be CEOs. Unfortunately, we Somali women are not doing this because we want to please our community and advocate for whatever the community tells us to do. We accept and assume this because it's hard to go against our own community.
Gabby Campos and Dominique Ordonez
In Somalia, there was a promised quota of 30% of legislative seats for women that was not reached. In your opinion, do you think it was crucial for this quota to be met? How do you think the delay has affected the advancement of Somali politics and human rights?
Furthermore, do you believe that your initiatives, such as ASPIRE, the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation, and other institutions and foundations, are working towards closing that gap? If so, how?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
Due to the war in Somalia, we remain neutral and do not focus on politics. This allows us to maintain flexibility and access places that our government or members of the international community cannot. This neutrality is essential to our role.
To be honest, I don't think quotas will help anyone. Even if they reach 50%, we don't have enough qualified women to do the work. Currently, we have only 20 or 23 women who were selected by their clans. The seats are assigned to the clans, and they usually don't want their seats to be taken by women. Instead, they prefer men. This is an important issue in the background that everyone must understand. Therefore, very few females are elected by the clans, and they are usually very old, inexperienced in politics, or simply working for their own interests. They work to please and support their clan, especially the leaders of their clans who want to maintain the old traditions.
The complexity of Somali politics is remarkable. To maintain peace, we need the support of the international community, especially those with interests in Somalia. Additionally, we must deal with terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, which operates close to our borders and is a permanent and dangerous organization. Thus, it is critical to have both domestic and international support to navigate these challenges.
In these circumstances, our first priority should be to prepare women to take up parliamentary seats. Currently, we lack good candidates and progressive women who can see the bigger picture. The women who do make it to parliament often do not have an independent voice and are not valued. This needs to change. To achieve this goal, we need institutions that can prepare young women for careers in politics. We also need passionate female politicians who understand the unique challenges of Somali politics. While the numbers may suggest that Somalia is not ready yet, we remain hopeful that the situation will improve in the future. It is not a question of time, but rather a question of being prepared to assume our responsibilities.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Do you see a change in the future, Dr. Mohamed?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
Yes, I do. Maybe it sounds cheesy, but I hope that young people who have grown up abroad, those who were born in other countries, or those who went to study abroad in Europe or the United States, will return with a different perspective. They will have seen the world.
In some countries, the first questions you are asked are not about your profession or education, but rather about your husband and clan. Your worth is determined by your lineage, rather than as an individual. This reminds me of the social hierarchy in Europe centuries ago, where being the king's daughter or part of the nobility was necessary for value. However, I believe change is coming. While some in the West view the internet and social media as negative, in Africa, they bring about positive change. We can now see what is happening abroad and witness young women leading. Social media will undoubtedly change us, perhaps not all for the better, but I am hopeful that it will ultimately have a positive impact.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
During our conversation about the internet and social media, we discussed the ideas brought back by young people who return to their home country after living abroad. However, while speaking with amazing activists like yourself, I realized that one of the challenges you face in trying to effect change in your society is the difficulty of introducing foreign ideas to those who wish to preserve their culture. Do you foresee this as a problem in Somalia's future as well?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
The issue of the Somali diaspora taking government positions is not a future problem, but a current one. This situation has caused friction within communities, as traditional members feel that they are being displaced by those who have studied abroad. Some even resort to attacking diaspora members, accusing them of bringing Western ideas and leaving when things go wrong. "We are here to stay," they say, "and we don't want your ideas.”
We need to understand how to navigate our own culture. Let me share a personal experience I had upon returning to Somalia. Despite identifying as Somali and African, living in Russia and the US for a total of 16 years had an impact on my mindset, and I didn't always notice the changes. When I returned, the unemployment rate in Somalia was very high. While working with Doctors Without Borders, the organization was attempting to open a control center. However, I couldn't find anyone who could understand my doctor's notes in English. Even among the older nurses, everyone spoke Italian. I thought I'd have to train new candidates, so I announced that I was hiring six individuals to work with me at DWB...in a country where unemployment was rampant! The following day, I arrived at the hospital and was met with over 200 candidates. I quickly realized my mistake in applying American/Western values of fairness and meritocracy to my own country's culture, where such an open announcement was uncommon. In Somalia, we don't advertise job openings; we spread the news through indirect means. We hire people as volunteers, train them, and then hire them. No one announces an open position. This was a hard lesson in learning about my own culture that I had not previously known. Upon returning, we must make an effort to learn about our society and culture. Once we do, we can bring about change. However, trying to impose Western values in Somalia without understanding the cultural differences is likely to fail.
What is being done to improve the situation for women living in Somalia? Has the government made any efforts to reduce the gender gap?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
I don't want to be pessimistic, but I don't see much hope. Our government is very poor, and we don't pay taxes. No one pays taxes here - it's a tax haven - and when the government asks us to pay taxes, we overreact and wonder why the government is taking our money. This lack of funds negatively affects our infrastructure and education system, among other things.
The majority of our government's income comes from international organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, and international NGOs. These organizations often negotiate with the government, providing money in exchange for initiatives to achieve gender equality. It's frustrating that this is a common situation in many countries across Africa and other continents.
In some cases, these organizations provide programs to help women instead of money. However, teaching them how to make baskets or sew isn't enough. There's no market for these products, and teaching every woman these skills doesn't make sense mathematically. Without a market to sell to, there's no income. So, why are we training them?
International organizations are not implementing programs that generate deep developmental or grassroots change. Such change takes time and has to come from within. It is neither realistic nor sincere for someone from abroad to come and say, "Hey, you're doing it wrong. You should have equal numbers."
What if every university had a woman sitting at the table, but those women were not raising their voices, were not fit, were not educated, could not negotiate, and were simply keeping to their traditional culture? What if they said, "Oh, we have a woman leading! Look at our pictures! Oh, look at our cafeteria; we have two women!"? Who is doing what? Are they in an administrative position? Are they assistants? They are never given a position to direct at least one university.
For the last two months, I have been working hard to address this issue. We have a consortium of universities, but there is no female professor, let alone a director or a dean.
How can we change our society if a young woman who goes to college cannot see another woman teaching? All the teachers and administrators in these institutions are male. This lack of representation can cause young women to become pessimistic and doubt their worth. They may wonder if they are only getting a degree to become an assistant at a bank or to be seen as a reproductive machine.
A big change is necessary in Somalia, and it should start with education. International organizations should invest in long-term change, rather than just financing the production of handicrafts or providing sewing machines. While these efforts are good, they are not the best way to promote structural change.
Speaking of obstacles, what kind of barriers did you face in school before attending university? And how does ASPIRE help to eliminate these barriers for children who may be in similar positions?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
I don't remember much from those days. The only thing I recall is my love for chemistry and my proficiency in it. However, many people told me that "chemistry is for boys" and that "women should read poetry and literature." I always asked why. This motivated me during the toughest moments of studying chemistry, such as when I had to learn formulas. It was inspiring. I believe this attitude is ingrained in me and my family. We don't accept "no" for an answer. Instead, it motivates us to prove that we can accomplish anything we set our minds to. This attitude was always a part of my personality when I was young.
I remember that girls had to sit separately in class. We had to wait until the teacher allowed us to speak out, but we were always given the opportunity by the end. We didn't raise our hands frequently, as everyone, including teachers, expected us not to. It was part of the culture, and looking back, I can see how gender inequality was reinforced between boys and girls in the classroom.
That's how we grew up. The small details we learned as we grew up became part of our own personality and DNA. At the end of the day, we thought, "That's the way I should behave." I never thought it was a problem in high school, but now I realize how important it is to address these issues.
What steps should Somalia, or any other country, take to improve female representation in a patriarchal-dominated society?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
I believe that self-esteem is the most important factor. My teachers and mentors in the US, as well as my mother (who is another very influential mentor), helped me understand this. In countries like Somalia, where women are undervalued, mental empowerment is crucial. However, I hesitate to use the word "empowerment" because it has been overused and is often used inappropriately.
I believe the best gift my mother and father gave me was the knowledge that, as a human being, I am equal to everyone, regardless of the circumstances. I often tell my friends that I grew up in two different worlds. The first was created by my parents, both educated in the Soviet Union and both Communists. In this world, my parents insisted that there could be no inequalities. I grew up in a household where I saw the best, not the worst, of Communist society.
However, when I left my home, I experienced a completely different world. A world where I constantly heard phrases like "you cannot speak," "you're a girl, you will be a woman," "you should not dress this way, you're a girl," and "you should not sit with a man, you're a girl." Navigating between these two worlds was a challenge, and every time I became frustrated outside, my parents comforted me. At times, I thought they were lying to me, creating an unreal world with their stories. But eventually, I realized that wasn't the case. They were helping me believe in myself as a human being.
Secondly, financial independence is crucial. If an international organization wishes to support Somali women, they must promote entrepreneurship and invest in them. They should provide genuine support by giving them money. The support should not be based on whether it aligns with the proposal or donors' interests. This is where microcredit fails. Women borrow a small amount of money, but lenders do not continue to support them. When the process ends, the woman returns the money with interest, and they consider it a successful process in helping women. However, this is not helpful. Women need the support of financial organizations to make difficult decisions due to their inexperience. To become a successful entrepreneur, a mental shift is required, and time is essential in such circumstances.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
Another idea that I learned this year is that one of the challenges in achieving gender equality is convincing women that it is a goal worth pursuing. While men often resist this change because they fear losing power, women may also be hesitant due to fear of the unknown. Is this also the case in Somalia?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
Yes, absolutely. They are extremely afraid. They fear losing their position and financial support. This is crucial because they rely on their husbands and fathers, and if they speak out, the community may blame them, which can be intimidating. They know that what they are doing is right, but they don't speak out because they fear losing their status in the community. This is another difference that I feel between my position and that of my family. As physicians, we are able to maintain our socioeconomic position, which provides us with some security.
Dr. Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho
This is the question I usually ask at the end of our interviews: Imagine waking up tomorrow as the President of Somalia. What is the first action you would take with your newfound power in Somalia?
Dr. Deqo Mohamed
"That would be a disaster!" It is difficult to imagine. I would need a team, but I do not know who would fill those roles. Let's imagine, nevertheless.
First, I would appoint intelligent, open-minded women to the most important positions in the administration. This would demonstrate to everybody that not everything has to be run by men. With this team, I would work to achieve gender equality. I would introduce reforms in the education system to achieve that goal, making critical thinking essential. We would stop copying and pasting and instead implement what Somalia needs according to its own social and cultural characteristics.