The Fearless Activist Taking on Sexual Violence in Somalia
After her father was assassinated, Ilwad Elman and her family fled war-torn Somalia, becoming refugees in Canada. But at 20 she returned home—and stayed—to support survivors of gender-based violence.
Our team at Narratively is thrilled to partner with Bigger Than Our Borders, a collaborative of Canadian nonprofit organizations, to produce this special series spotlighting inspiring women and girls fighting for their rights around the globe.
llwad Elman knew she would be risking her safety and possibly even her life by going back to Somalia — but she was determined to go.
It was 2010 and Elman, just 20 years old, was returning to her home country after growing up as a refugee in Canada with her family. She was born in the Somali capital of Mogadishu in 1989, the second eldest of three. This was a turbulent time in the country. Just two years after Elman’s birth, the Siad Barre military regime was overthrown, sparking a civil war that has caused chaos and instability in the country for decades.
Her father, Elman Ali Ahmed, a well-known peace and human rights activist, was assassinated for his advocacy in 1996. Her mother fled the country with Elman and her two sisters, arriving in Canada three years after her father’s death. Elman was just shy of 10 years old when they settled in Ottawa, in 1999, and she remembers those early days as being “humble.” But she says she never felt like an outsider after she and her sisters began living and going to school in the nation’s capital.
“I never felt any less Canadian than any of my peers or my classmates. And I think that’s one of the great things about Canada,” she said in a recent interview from Mogadishu. “You knew that you came from a different country, you had a different background and a different set of responsibilities instilled at a very young age, but my upbringing never felt any less Canadian than anyone else.”
When Elman was 16, her mother, Fartuun Adan, left her and her younger sister in the care of their eldest sister, Almas, to return to Mogadishu to carry on the work of her late husband. Adan took over as the executive director at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, originally founded by Ahmed. There, as she had in the early days when it was first established, she worked to stop children from being pressed into military service, and to help women and young civilians whose security and rights were being trampled in the crosshairs of the decades-long civil war and humanitarian crisis.
Four years later, Elman was drawn to Somalia to see and understand her parents’ work. “Honestly, I did not think about my own safety. I knew that it was dangerous,” Elman says. “I always believed that it can’t be as bad as what’s being depicted. But when I arrived, it really was that bad. Worse, actually.”
Elman never intended to stay in Somalia long. She had planned a month-long visit to see her mother and, hopefully, get a “reboost” to her life that might inspire her next steps when she returned to Canada. But then she saw firsthand that many women were forced to navigate their lives in a country where rape and sexual violence were an “open secret.”
Sexual violence is often used as a weapon of war, and in Somalia, it was common to see military convoys parked outside of displacement camps inhabited mostly by women. The militia men were there to either loot the limited aid that was available to women at the camps or to “rape and pillage them as they saw fit at night,” she says.
And not only was there a culture of acceptance for perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence in the country, there was nowhere for rape survivors to receive even basic levels of care.
Elman says she was shocked at the lack of options available for the women coming to them looking for help. “We were getting a steady record of reports of women and girls that were being abused. And we found ourselves in a position where we kept reporting these cases but didn’t have a single place to refer them to,” she says.
Elman felt compelled to stay in Somalia and work alongside her mother to help Somali women reclaim their lives and challenge the stigmas that often silence survivors and perpetuate violence against women and girls. “I saw the impact that she was creating and how many people needed her,” she says of her mother. “I wanted to help her and be a part of the movement.”
That’s what led Elman and her mother to open Sister Somalia in 2011, the first rape crisis center in the country.
“We realized the needs that needed to be met were so simple: Women just needed a safe space to be treated and then measures for preventing this from happening again,” she says.
“We turned our office into that safe space.”
The first Sister Somalia facility was small — just a one-room office that doubled as a storage room for HIV post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP) kits. It also served as a safe house for women to stay if they were seeking legal help. When they first opened their doors, Elman estimates up to 40 sexual assault survivors were coming in every day looking for help. This influx allowed the team there to learn and understand the needs of women in the country and develop ways to help them.
“We were able to not only support women and train a few of our staff, but then also generate a conversation on sexual violence that didn’t before exist by leveraging media and different outlets,” Elman says. “And from there it just kept snowballing.”
There are now 10 Sister Somalia centers across the country, including five safe houses and facilities in decentralized areas outside of the capital. Their services have grown to encompass not only clinical treatment for rape survivors, but also counseling, education, and social and legal supports “to help women escape systemic cycles of violence and insecurity,” Elman says.
She and her mother personally assist the women seeking help in their centers and safe houses, including facilitating individual and group counseling. Elman’s own working days start early in the morning and often extend well into the evening. During the weeks prior to when Elman and I spoke, which coincided with the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, Elman said she often ended her days at their safe house in Mogadishu, where she would break fast in the evenings with the women there and stay so late she sometimes ended up spending the night.
Samia, a 22-year-old woman from a village outside of Mogadishu, is currently living in one of the safe houses established by Elman Peace and Sister Somalia. Like many thousands in the country, Samia arrived in Mogadishu a few months ago in search of assistance amid a deadly drought and famine that has led to tens of thousands of displaced people, and ended up in a refugee camp where she was sexually assaulted. (She did not want to use her last name or identify her home village, for fear of being further targeted.)
When people heard what happened to her, they told her to seek help at Sister Somalia. “When I first came here, I just got health and medical treatment,” she says through a translator, from the safe house in Mogadishu. “But then I started going to classes [at Sister Somalia], as well, and [now] I’m working on rebuilding my life.”
Samia is benefitting from a new recovery-to-empowerment model implemented at Sister Somalia. It was developed because many of the women who were coming to them for medical treatment from sexual assaults were returning multiple times after suffering subsequent attacks. The staff realized individual recovery was not enough. These women also needed changes to the way they lived their lives when they returned home.
The model is based on helping women get the tools they need to escape dependance on violent relationships. Sometimes this means physically relocating women to a different place; other times it may mean helping survivors access finances, education or day care so they can work in their communities.
“But it also spans further, into changing and challenging some of the social norms that continue to perpetuate violence against women and girls and normalize it,” Elman says. “It has evolved to not just support the individual, but really re-establishing protection structures within the community.”
Samia says the help she has received is critical for women like her. “It’s very important to have a place like this, a place where people can go to get services,” she says.
The work Elman and her mother do is definitely dangerous. Human rights defenders and journalists have been targeted at various times for exposing crimes and corruption in the country, including sexual violence against women. And tragedy struck her own family again four years ago, when her sister Almas, an activist who had returned to Africa a few years after Elman, to do aid work, was also killed. She was hit by a bullet in Mogadishu while riding in a vehicle inside the Halane compound, which houses aid workers and international diplomats. It’s unclear whether she was being targeted.
Her sister’s untimely death was the one time Elman says she and her mother considered retreating from war-ravaged Somalia — back to Canada where they could grieve and recalibrate in peace.
“I think any other rational person would think that this is enough; maybe it’s not the right time to advocate for these issues,” Elman says. “It just didn’t make sense to continue to fight at that time when two members of my family had already been killed in Mogadishu.”
But they did not leave. Instead, it deepened their commitment to their work and has made Elman more grateful to be working alongside her mother. “Having my mother as both my boss but also my mentor and my partner in this journey, it makes the very difficult losses and pains that come with it a bit more bearable because we can lean on each other.”
Elman believes that her Canadian roots and the principles of freedom and self-determination that Canadians enjoy as basic human rights are part of what has driven her to fight for the rights of women in Somalia. But she feels Canada could be doing more to support work like hers.
Canada has contributed millions in humanitarian aid in Somalia, including $90.4 million in the last fiscal year alone. The Canadian government also provided direct funding to the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center over the last two years, including $50,000 in 2020-21 and $34,000 in 2021-22, according to a statement from Global Affairs Canada. But Elman says centers like hers often have to go through multiple levels of bureaucracy to access pivotal funding to continue their work on the ground.
That’s where she says Canada could do more. “I think as a nation that has a foreign feminist policy fund that really speaks to the important role of local actors, of inclusion, of localizing global agendas, that there needs to be a little bit more, I think, bravery from Canada to actually work directly with organizations like mine and not to have to go through so many different layers to support women peace builders at the front lines,” Elman says.
Canada has received international attention since announcing that feminist foreign policy back in 2017. But more recently, humanitarians have criticized the government for pulling back. Earlier this year, Canadian international aid agencies jointly called for Justin Trudeau’s Liberal government to invest more in foreign assistance amid pressing humanitarian challenges in many countries grappling with wars, drought, famine, inflation and the ongoing impacts of Covid-19. They were bitterly disappointed this spring when the Trudeau government’s annual operating budget contained a 15 percent cut in funding for international assistance.
“These kinds of reductions really undermine the feminist international assistance policy and the ability to implement that policy, particularly for gender programming and stand-alone gender programming,” says Erin Kiley, director of international programs for Oxfam Canada, a global aid organization that focuses on promoting and supporting rights of women and girls.
The funding cuts mean larger organizations like Oxfam Canada will not be able to launch any new programs that focus on gender justice, Kiley says. There is also uncertainty about whether existing programs will have their funding renewed, as resources for work on sexual and gender-based violence have declined over the last few years, she adds.
But the impact on smaller, grassroots women’s rights organizations like Elman Peace and Sister Somalia could be “devastating,” Kiley says.
“Project-based funding through Global Affairs Canada or, even better, core funding to fund the heart of what they do can not only sustain those organizations for years and allow them to do their important work, but also can allow them to grow,” she says.
“Then they can leverage that for further funding with other donors … so that kind of predictability and access is really important for smaller, local organizations.”
Elman hopes Canadians and other Westerners will challenge themselves to support her work and the work of others in Somalia by not only contributing time or funds to causes that support women, but also doing more to inform themselves of the realities that women around the world are facing.
“The journey and the plight for women’s rights is a long and arduous one, but it is not one that’s unique to Somalia,” she says. “We know this to be a global challenge, and I think that the more people see the similarities in the plight and wanting to be a part of the liberation of women, the faster all of our progress will go along.”
Elman says many Somalis expected her and Adan to leave Somalia after her sister was killed, but their decision to stay has opened a new level of trust and recognition among their people. This has allowed them to open centers in areas where other organizations have not been able to make headway without the same buy-in and cooperation from the community.
Elman and her mother have gained international recognition and acclaim for their work in Somalia, including being shortlisted three times for the Nobel Peace Prize. But Elman says her personal focus is grounded in her work at home.
“The things that we are fighting for are some of the freedoms and principles that so many of us in Canada growing up consider basic rights,” Elman says. “It should not be a luxury of the developed world to have self-determination and to be in an environment where you can be safe. And that’s what I’ve wanted to provide to Somalia.”
In this series, produced in partnership with Bigger Than Our Borders, a collaborative of Canadian nonprofit organizations, we’re spotlighting stories that demonstrate the impact of Canada’s feminist foreign policy. Learn more about initiatives supporting women, girls and gender-diverse individuals around the world at biggerthanourborders.ca.
Teresa Wright is a national award-winning Canadian journalist with more than 16 years experience covering local, regional and national news with a particular focus on politics and policy.
Shafei Mohamed Dahir is a photographer, cinematographer and storyteller based in Somalia.
Jesse Sposato is Narratively’s Deputy Editor