A Somali-Canadian human rights activist left her comfortable environment in Ottawa to war-ravaged Somalia to help women who were being raped by soldiers.
At a time Somalia was almost torn apart, Ilwad Elman took a bold step to establish the first rape Crisis Centre in the capital, Mogadishu.
Activism runs through her family; her parents were deep into it in Somalia until the assassination of her father in 1996. He was shot just a few meters from the family home over his campaign, ‘Drop the Gun, Pick up the Pen’.
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Subsequently, they left to Ottawa, Canada in 1999. “We’ve always been raised to understand that we had a big responsibility, whether that meant going back to Somalia or doing activism in Canada. It was never prescribed for us exactly what that would look like, but we always had strong encouragement that there was a bigger purpose for us,” she told Vogue
The Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Somalia, a non-governmental agency, was founded by her mother, Fartuun Elman who returned to Somalia in 2007.
Elman joined her mother in Mogadishu at the age of 19 to establish the first rape crisis centre in the country. “The conflict in Somalia has evolved. When I first went back it literally was a war zone. Out of the 17 districts, there were only two that were controlled by the government. It’s evolved, but now it’s a different kind of conflict.”
“It’s a lot calmer. You don’t feel like you’re in war, but things happen. There are explosions that kill hundreds of people at a time. It’s just a matter of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. In that sense, it almost feels a little bit more dangerous now than when I first came back,” she said.
Sister Somalia as the organization is otherwise called has evolved from simply helping victims of sexual abuse to the prevention of violence against women and working to strengthen the country’s sexual assault laws.
The Elman peace organization has included monitoring and documenting human rights abuses, mentoring young women into leadership roles, skills training, and providing healing and therapy to those marred by years of poverty and conflict.
“We’ve scaled to nine different regions. Every center we’ve opened since then has been sustained by the community. We opened it on the heels of a massive humanitarian crisis—over 400,000 people died because of a lack of food and water, and we had a huge influx of people coming to Mogadishu, mostly mothers with children in tow coming to the camps.
“It was a free-for-all; we had military vehicles outside of the camps raping women and girls as they pleased, there was no protection. We started to help women, and at our highest we’d have about 40 women a day. We would provide them with the closest prophylaxis treatment and counseling, but the need was overwhelming. What we also tried to do was generate a conversation about sexual violence,” Elman told Vogue.
She recounted how their centers were shut down, staff being harassed and threatened, women coming forward and reporting rapes and being arrested, but eventually Somalia had its first Sexual Offenses Bill.
According to her, the war-torn nation now records more than 15% women going into politics, and women are no longer being hushed in the same way.
In 2019, she was named one of Africa’s 100 most influential people.
To keep her father’s legacy, 20 years later Elman still adopts his “drop the gun, pick up the pen” mantra to help young men and children at the front lines.
“We’re still using the same approach, because it still applies. We know that it works, and now we’re actually scaling outside of Somalia and bringing our solutions to other countries, like Mali, Cameroon, Nigeria, and other epicenters of violent extremism,” Elman said.
In 2006, Ilwad was appointed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon as an advisor on Youth, Peace & Security and since 2018 she has been a UN Peacebuilding Trust Fund advisor to the Secretary General.
Elman, who is the Director of Programs and Development for the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Somalia, was reportedly shortlisted for the 2019 Nobel Peace Prize.