Somalia has birthed some of the most visible members of the fight for social justice here in the U.S. and abroad, including Minnesota congressperson Ilhan Omar and Galkayo Education Centre for Peace and Development founder Hawa Aden Mohamed. Perhaps the youngest of these leaders is 29-year-old Ilwad Elman, a Somali-Canadian activist who works at the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center in Mogadishu and made the 2019 shortlist for the Nobel Peace Prize.
On Thursday, Elman sat down with Vogue in New York to talk about the very real effects of her work, what she’s learned from her mentors, and her favorite thing about her home country.
What sparked your passion for activism?
Both my parents were human rights activists, and when my father was killed in Somalia, that was the catalyst for my mother and my sisters and me to leave. We went to Ottawa, Canada, and 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.
Is your mom still doing activist work?
She is. My mom was actually the driving force for me to return to Somalia. She left my sisters and me in Canada when we were 14, 16, and 18, and she always said that when my younger sister was in high school, she’d go back to Somalia, so she did. She lives in Mogadishu now, and she’s shifting more toward politics. A few years back, my younger sister also joined her, and she felt like a lot of the work we were doing was very responsive but not necessarily enabling of a more progressive and just environment, so her approach was to get into security. She’s now the youngest female commander in Somalia.
You founded the first rape crisis center in Somalia almost ten years ago, in 2010. Is it still running?
It’s still running, and 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.
How do you feel like that conversation has changed since the rape crisis center opened?
It’s evolved immensely. A mere ten years ago, we had the president at the time saying there was no such thing as rape happening, our centers being shut down, our staff being harassed and threatened, women coming forward and reporting rapes and being arrested. Now, we have our first Sexual Offenses Bill, we have a spike of more than 15% in women going into politics, and women are no longer being silenced in the same way. Now we work not only on response, but also prevention and challenging social norms that continue to perpetuate conflict and subjugation of women. We work with young men and boys to have those conversations.
Did the #MeToo movement have any ripple effect in Somalia?
Absolutely. The #MeToo movement started off at a much higher level, but it trickled down through layers of solidarity. Women in Somalia, women who have gone through our programs, realize that [sexual assault] isn’t something that just happens to you when you’re at war. Women in the safest, most developed places are being harassed, and the statistics are stark: 1 in 3 women worldwide will be raped in her lifetime. We had some marches during the Women’s March because this is an issue that unites women everywhere.
How is your work with former child soldiers developing?
Our recipe for peace building—“drop the gun, pick up the pen”—is about creating alternative livelihoods for young men and children at the front lines, and it started with my father twenty years ago. He was working in a much different context, mostly working with young people who were being co-opted by warlords, but more than 20 years later, we’re still using the same approach, because it still applies. You don’t have to wait for traditional peace agreements when the masses are accessible. We’re working with children who are handed over to us by the Ministry of Internal Security; young people who have gone through our programs become ambassadors to their peers. 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.
You probably have to spend a lot of time talking about the issues at work in Somalia, but what do you love about your country?
I love the ocean. I’m such a fish baby. Somalia has the longest coastline in all of Africa, with beautiful white sand beaches, clear water, and we actually use the ocean a lot in our work. We have a surf therapy program to tap into the cathartic, healing powers of the ocean.
Who are your mentors?
My mentor for the last three years was Kofi Annan. He unfortunately passed away, but a lot of my thinking about global diplomacy and governance was inherited from him. It was one of my most monumental learning experiences. My mother is my mentor—the strength that my sisters and I have inherited, many people think it’s from my father because he was a martyr in his work, but really it was my mother. She had my sisters and me by the age of 24, raised us, and is now back in the field doing the work that she began with my father. Ambassador Swanee Hunt is someone I greatly admire—she’s an American ambassador who was one of the first women to negotiate a peace agreement in Bosnia. I remember reading about her years ago, and she was one of my first examples of women leading the charge.
Looking ahead to this big honor you’re up for, how are you feeling?
I feel great because even just being nominated has already opened so many doors to further impact my life. I want to make sure that this momentum adds value to the work. Win or lose, I think a lot of people feel like they have seen themselves in me in this process, that it is possible that a 21st-century leader is not an old white man in a boardroom, and young women who tick every minority box can also be in positions of leadership and be recognized for it. The outpouring of support has been very humbling.
Will you get up at 5 a.m. EST on Friday to hear the announcement?
I don’t know! My plan was to actually leave on Thursday, so I’d be in the air, but things came up, so we’ll see. I’ll probably be awake [laughs].
Originally Appeared on Vogue