Ilwad Elman: the woman paving the way to peace in Somalia

Ilwad Elman is one of Somalia’s leading human rights activists. (Credit: Paolo Spallasso/Right Livelihood)

Ilwad Elman has dedicated her career to building peace and promoting human rights in her home country Somalia. After she travelled to Geneva to take part in the International Film and Human Rights Festival (FIFDH) last week, we spoke to her about her work, what drives her and her hopes for the future.

For over a decade, Ilwad Elman has been at the forefront of Somalia's peace process. Her work with survivors of sexual violence and former child soldiers in the country has led her around the world, from her home town of Mogadishu to the United Nations headquarters in New York and the White House in Washington DC.

Alongside her mother, with whom she runs their organisation Elman Peace in the Somali capital, she has been honoured with more than a dozen international humanitarian awards, including the Right Livelihood and the Aurora prize. She has been nominated for the Nobel peace prize no fewer than three times.

As the daughter of Elman Ali Ahmed, known as the “Somali father of peace”, her career path may not come as a surprise. She was born in Mogadishu during the early 1990s, a tumultuous period when Somalia was teetering on the brink of civil war. Her father had rapidly become the country’s best-known peace activist, renowned for his work disarming and rehabilitating child soldiers. His slogan “drop the gun, pick up the pen” can still be found written on walls in the capital.

When war erupted after the collapse of Siad Barre’s government in 1991, the country was engulfed in violence. As the conflict intensified, Elman’s mother, Fartuun Adan, made the difficult decision to leave the country with her three young daughters – Almaas, Ilwad and Iman. Her father remained in Mogadishu to continue the work he had dedicated his life to.

The young family did not know it, but they would never see Elman Ali Ahmed again. The four were living in a refugee camp in Kenya when they received the news on 9 March 1996 that he had been assassinated by a hooded gunman.

Although the time she spent with her father was tragically brief, Elman was well aware of his legacy while growing up in Canada, where she and her family were given asylum. “Ever since I was young, every Somali person I would meet would have such an emotional reaction when they found out he was my father,” she tells Geneva Solutions over video call. “I grew up hearing stories about him and the impact that he made.”

Her mother, too, made sure her daughters never forgot their larger-than-life father. “He really sounded like a character,” Elman says, with a distinct look of pride. “Hearing that he wouldn't cut his hair until there was peace, that he only would wear white until the war was over, that he would literally chop off the top of a car to turn it into a convertible and have hundreds of people chasing down the street. He didn’t sound real.”

In 2006, 10 years after the loss of her husband, Elman’s mother decided to return to Mogadishu to continue the humanitarian work they had begun together by founding Elman Peace. It was a worrying time for her daughters back in Canada, with the war in Somalia at a height and contact with their mother sporadic.

“We would go weeks at a time without hearing from her, and the only real image of Somalia that was depicted at that time through mainstream media was one of suffering and conflict and a horrendous amount of loss of life,” she says.

Four years later, Elman went to visit her mother to learn more about her work. She never left. “I initially meant to stay for one month, but that one month has turned into 13 years,” she laughs.

She had always dreamed of returning to Somalia to continue her father’s legacy, and wanted to see firsthand what was compelling her mother to stay in a country where her life was constantly in danger. But when she saw the impact of Fartuun’s work, she understood.

“I saw that in the same way that my sisters and I needed her, so many others needed her too,” she explains. “And I saw that she was working primarily with young people and that there was a space for me to contribute, and my ideas were resonating. I found my purpose there.”

Confronting the realities of war

She joined her mother at Elman Peace, where the pair continued Elman Ali Ahmed’s work finding innovative ways to help Somalis whose lives have been torn apart by war. Although political peace remains elusive, with 15 peace agreements signed to this day yet the conflict ongoing, Elman says there are still opportunities to build “social peace” which cannot be missed. “Peace does not happen in a vacuum,” she adds.

Disarming and rehabilitating child soldiers is still a core part of what they do, as is protecting and promoting women’s rights. In 2010, they founded the country’s first rape crisis centre, Sister Somalia, in response to the huge surge in sexual violence against displaced women coming to the capital. On a typical day, they would have around 30 women coming to the centre seeking help after they were raped and sexually abused, largely at the hands of military personnel in the city’s displacement camps. They have now expanded to cover nine different regions in the country.

Although she was driven by a fierce passion to help her fellow Somalis and build a better future, she admits it was challenging to return to the country and be “confronted with the realities of war”. When she first returned to Mogadishu, the majority of the city was under siege by the terrorist group Al-Shabaab, with only two out of 17 districts controlled by the government.

“I remember we would wake up in the morning and before we went to the office we would wait for a radio programme at 9 am,” she says. “Everyone waited for this programme because it would announce which roads had bombs and IEDs detonated on them. So you'd wait for the first group of people to pass by these roads and then you'd be able to go to work and move around the city. The presence of the frontline was very visible.”

She was also confronted by a level of resistance she had not expected: “I had all these ideas and energy, but I was reminded very quickly that there was a limited space for women to contribute and have a voice, especially young women and those coming from the west.”

Her mother also faced opposition from within her late husband’s family. As a widowed woman with no sons in a staunchly patriarchal society, they disapproved of her daring to carry on his legacy. However, Elman was inspired by her strength in spite of this.

“It really wasn’t a welcoming environment for her, so for her to still make that decision to stay really compelled me to fight alongside her,” she explains. Although her father is a well-known hero of Somalia, Elman cites her mother as her main inspiration. “My mother has always been my mentor,” she says. “She is really the visionary leader that I have been empowered by.”

Women stepping up

Although she acknowledges that the reality facing women in Somalia is still far from where she would like it to be, the progress since she returned in 2010 is “overwhelming”.

“There is now recognition of the scale of violence against women and girls, including the sexual exploitation and abuse at the hands of peacekeeping troops that we have been very vocal about all the way up to the UN Security Council,” she says. There has also been a huge rise in women’s political participation, female-led civil society organisations and more women than ever joining the security forces.

“There are a lot of young women now occupying spaces and challenging stereotypes every single day, from sport to technology to business to leadership, and all of this is necessary,” she says. “And with more and more women present in these spaces, it is creating an atmosphere and acceptance for more to join as well.”

“It's encouraging to see that women are fighting against so many different barriers to participate because they know what their participation means for other girls that are marginalised,” she adds.

Ensuring girls have access to education in Somalia is also essential to continue this trajectory of progress, Elman explains. In a country where education is completely privatised and the only free schools are run by civil society organisations, a large proportion of the population is missing out on schooling, with girls hit the hardest. In response, Elman Peace recently launched a girls leadership academy, offering 200 girls four years of free education.

Elman explains that the programme was the brainchild of her late sister Almaas, who she tragically lost in 2019. Her older sister, an aid worker and activist, was shot and killed while riding in a car in a heavily fortified compound near the airport in Mogadishu. It is still not clear who was responsible.

Elman wrote in an article for The Hill in 2021 that the loss of her sister pushed her to reflect on how she and others living through conflict processed trauma.

“[In Somalia] it’s considered weak or even ungrateful to ‘complain’ or speak of the trauma that one has encountered,” she wrote. “Instead, people are encouraged to be thankful to have survived and are expected to simply move on.”

The experience gave new impetus to Elman’s work promoting the importance of mental health support – not only for victims but also for civil society staff and local aid workers, who do not have access to the same mental health support as their international counterparts.

With one third of Somalis affected by some form of mental illness, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), Elman says more must be done to normalise the conversation about mental health.

“The concept of mental health and wellbeing are not ones that are mainstreamed, and that's what we are trying to make a culture around – not just for beneficiaries of the different services and programmes that we offer but also for frontline workers,” she says.

Mental health comes front and centre of their work with women and former child soldiers, with Elman and her colleagues constantly coming up with ideas to help people rebuild their lives. They recently began running an ocean therapy programme which uses surfing to help young people deal with their trauma, taking advantage of Somalia’s long and largely untouched coastline.

Since she returned to Somalia 10 years ago, the security and development situation has undoubtedly improved. Elman also says there has been a rise in youth leadership, more women holding power in government, and citizens becoming much more active in pushing for peace. “A society that holds governments to account, and preaches and advocates for its own peace, is what gives me the most hope, and we're starting to see that,” she says.

However, political corruption, unrest and attacks by Al-Shabaab continue, and the country continues to plunge deeper into a humanitarian crisis partly fuelled by a historic drought that is thought to have killed over 40,000 people last year.

But despite the many obstacles her country faces on the road to peace, Elman has no plans to leave any time soon. “The reason I’ve never wanted to leave is because change is happening, however incremental, and we can see that we are contributing to rebuilding a society, whether that's our investments in economic recovery or education, or challenging social norms,” she says. “Peacebuilding is a long-term investment, and we’re just at the beginning.”