Ilwad Elman’s path to helping her mother establish Sister Somalia, the first center to provide care and support for survivors of rape and assault in Mogodishu, Somalia seems embedded in her DNA. Her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, was a revered activist for peace in Somalia, known for coining the popular Somali peace mantra, “Put down the gun and pick up the pen.”
He was shot in the back in 1996, in the wake of the Somali civil war. His murder (some suspect it was an assassination) was never solved. Her mother, Fartuun Adun, is a human rights activist who created several community organizations in the city of Mogadishu to care for orphans and young children suffering in the midst of sectarian violence. Hoping to escape the strife and violence in Somalia, her mother took Elman and her two sisters to Canada three years after Elman’s father died. But the needs of her people called Adun home; she returned to Somalia in 2007 to continue her late husband’s work.
A few years later, Elman travelled to Somalia to visit her mother. She quickly realized she too had a responsibility to support her father’s legacy. So, in 2010, Elman permanently relocated to Somalia. Al-Shabaab, a sect of Al-Qaeda, was controlling Mogadishu at the time, but like her father, and her mother, Elman refused to let terrorism deter her from helping her people.
Today, Elman, who is 28, works beside her mother as the director of programs and development at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, a non-governmental organization her mother founded to uphold the legacy of advocacy for peace her father championed. She also runs a subsidiary of the Elman Center, called Sister Somalia, a refuge for Somali women and children who have been internally-displaced due to the constant violence, many of whom have survived sexual assault. Sister Somalia offers free post-prophylaxis treatment for the prevention of HIV transmission and emergency contraception, connections to safe-houses, emergency grants for relocation, psychological counselling, education and business starter kits.
Elman brings comfort to women like Nadifa (her last name is not given to protect privacy), a young mother who was tortured and brutally beaten after fighting off a militia member whom she found raping her 11-year-old daughter in front of her other children.
Stories like these fuel Elman to speak out against rampant gender-based violence in Somalia. As the Youth Ambassador for Somalia on Ending Sexual Violence in Conflict, Elman speaks publicly on sexual and reproductive rights, female genital mutilation and cutting and identity and culture in post-civil war Somalia. Like her father and mother, she plans to advocate for peace and human rights until they are an inextricable part of the fabric of life in Somalia.