Abdi was born in Mogadishu, situated in south-central Somalia. Her mother died when she was 12 years old. Abdi thereafter took on family chores as the eldest child in the family. Her father was an educated professional.
For her early schooling, Abdi attended local elementary, intermediate and secondary academies.
In 1964, she received a scholarship from the Women's Committee of the Soviet Union. Abdi subsequently studied medicine at a Kiev institution, graduating in 1971. The following year, she began law studies at Mogadishu's Somali National University.
In 1973, Abdi got married and gave birth to her first child two years later. She would practice medicine during the morning and work toward her law degree in her spare time, eventually earning it in 1979.
In 1983, Abdi opened the Rural Health Development Organisation (RHDO) on family-owned land in the southern Lower Shebelle region. It began as a one-room clinic offering free obstetrician services to around 24 rural women per day, and later evolved into a 400-bed hospital.
When the civil war broke out in Somalia during the early 1990s, Abdi stayed behind at the behest of her grandmother, who had advised her to use her qualifications to assist the vulnerable. She subsequently established a new clinic and school for the displaced and orphans.
The RHDO was renamed the Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) in 2007. It gradually expanded to include a relief camp, which during the 2011 drought housed 90,000 people on the 1,300 acres surrounding Abdi's hospital.
Two years prior, at the height of the Islamist insurgency in southern Somalia, militants had laid siege to the compound and attempted to force Abdi to shut it down. She stood her ground and the rebels left within a week, following pressure from local residents, the UN and other advocacy groups. The militants again stormed the area in February 2012, leading Abdi to temporarily suspend services until their eventual departure.
The Dr. Hawa Abdi Foundation (DHAF) is run by Abdi and her two physician daughters, CEO Deqo Adan (also known as Deqo Mohamed) and assistant Adan (also known as Amina Mohamed), who followed in their mother's footsteps as ob/gyn specialists. As of 2012, the organization has a multinational staff of 102 workers, augmented by a 150-member team comprising volunteers, fishermen and farmers.
The DHAF compound includes a hospital, school and nutritional center, and provides shelter, water and medical care to mostly women and children. Since its establishment in the early 1980s, the complex has served an estimated 2 million people.
Although services are offered at no charge, Abdi operates several fishing and agricultural projects within the compound to inculcate self-sustenance. The hospital also contains a small plot of land, where vegetables and maize are grown and later in part sold to cover some of the facility's maintenance costs.
Funding for the compound's equipment and medical supplies is mainly secured through remittances from Somali expatriates as well as general contributions to the DHAF. Since 2011, the organization has also received support from the Women in the World Foundation.
In 2014, Abdi received the Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award: Freedom from Want in Middelburg, the Netherlands.
In 2007, Abdi was named Hiiraan Online's Person of the Year. Glamour magazine later named her and her two daughters among its 2010 "Women of the Year".
In 2012, Abdi was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She also received the Women of Impact Award from the WITW Foundation, BET's Social Humanitarian Award, and the John Jay Medal for Justice.
On May 25, 2017, Abdi received the honorary Doctor of Laws degree from Harvard University.Keeping Hope Alive (2013)