Tackling gender-based violence in Somalia: A conversation with Ilwad Elman and Faartun Adan

Seven years ago, the UN General Assembly committed itself to the 2030 agenda and with it, to ending violence against women and girls worldwide. Yet, the WHO continues to estimate that 1 in 3 women worldwide has been subjected to gender-based violence in the course of her life. In countries such as Somalia, affected by armed conflicts, drought and food insecurity, such a number can be tripled, as 99 per cent of women continue to be subjected to the traditional harmful practice of Female Genital Mutilation.

In this difficult context, through their organisation Elman Peace, Right Livelihood Laureates  Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman are championing community-based peacebuilding initiatives and life-saving support to marginalised groups, including survivors of gender-based violence.

On the occasion of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, we interviewed the mother-daughter duo on their essential work and the situation in Somalia, from an intergenerational perspective.

Right Livelihood: Can you tell us more about Elman Peace, how it came together and how it contributes to ending gender-based violence (GBV)? 

Faartun Adan: Actually, it was Elman, my husband, who started this. At the time it wasn’t an organisation, he was helping the youth, offering them training and employment. People trusted him and knew that whenever they needed to hire someone, it had to be through Elman. A lot of people, including the warlords, lost many fighters who chose to work instead of fighting for them. And that’s how the initiative “Drop the Gun, Pick Up the Pen” started. Of course, the warlords threatened him numerous times, and asked him to stop what he was doing. He was a humble guy who really wanted to help. Whatever he had, he was giving it to others… until the warlords assassinated him.

Then, I left the country to offer more opportunities to my three girls. We became refugees in Canada, but I always hoped to have the opportunity to go back and do his work. We may have lost him but I did not want to lose his legacy. When I came back to Somalia, the situation was worse than when I left. The war had destroyed everything: the cities, the people, everything. But I made the decision to stay and do the work I came for. I needed to at least try. When I started, I received a lot of support from the community, they helped me a lot. Then, Ilwad also came. I was not happy with it, I told her it was too risky for her and that she needed to stay in Canada. She paid for her own flight, joined me for “just one month” but then ended up staying.

Ilwad Elman: In 2010, there were hundreds of thousands of people flocking from all regions to Mogadishu, in a desperate search for aid and refuge. It was mostly women with children, because of the drought that was happening, but the IDP camp where they were supposed to get services and relief and security was where they were most victimised and exposed to rape. We found ourselves in a position where we just simply did not know where to refer them. There was no clinical management of rape services available in the hospital. There was no safe housing and no legal action.

Adan: No one was talking about rape. This was not right. So I decided to talk about it to the media, and it became a huge issue, both internationally and locally. At the time we had a small office, but women who had been raped started coming to us. We would help them and take them to the hospital. And that’s how the “Sister Somalia” programme started. Eventually, we created the first rape crisis centre in Mogadishu, to offer women a place to stay, heal, and then go back to their families. Today, a lot of women still don’t speak up about it, because they are afraid to embarrass themselves without achieving justice. In our centres, we offer medication, counselling, and education, and we also help women who want to report it to the police, but we do not push them, because we know how sensitive it is.

Elman: People are often shocked to learn that the first rape crisis centre in Somalia was founded only in 2010 when there have been humanitarian and international investments in Somalia for three decades now. It’s shocking, but it’s true. People were aware of what was happening in Somalia, but they would only document, monitor and report on the violations. Acting is a completely different story. Back then, we had systemic sexual abuse, no gender protection officers in the peacekeeping missions. We saw that women’s and girls’ bodies were just the frontline of conflict, but really, to no regard for anyone.

Against this backdrop, it’s been quite tangible to see how far we’ve come just a few years later: service providers are now the norm in cities, there are now more women in the National Assembly, but also increasingly specific policies and bills to address sexual violence. Progress is happening.

Today, we are able to look at gender-based violence from a much more holistic perspective, providing services that not only help women and girls to rebuild and reclaim their lives but also challenging social norms to end impunity and end the cycle of violence that women and girls are subjected to. Rape crisis centres have evolved into structures where we look at the socio-economic development of women and girls, positioning them to escape violent situations by providing them with grants to relocate from areas that are just too fragile.

We also work with the government on policy development and to ensure the representation of survivors in legal courts. This is how some of our interventions have grown in less than ten years. We both use whatever we have in our arsenal to advance this work, whether it’s from global advocacy, or local advocacy with the government administration, but then also direct service delivery. We really are available all the time to our community and work directly with our community outreach workers. We train local staff in every region and try to decentralise learning so that our facilities can also be a hub where other organisations can cooperate with us.

Adan: This work we do is not something for which you can say “Oh, this can be a one-year, two-year programme.” It is a lifelong programme. Your door must always be open. That’s also why the work we do becomes more personal and emotional, it’s a lot of involvement.

Right Livelihood: How was your work received?

Elman: We were able to generate a conversation on sexual violence that didn’t exist before. Survivors were coming out, journalists were covering the stories. However, those survivors and journalists were being arrested, which then generated a global discussion. So then, the president at the time even held a press conference, saying that anyone who speaks about rape is defaming our culture, our religion and our country and that it simply does not happen.

We have presented these issues at various fora that have also yielded some change, to where we now have gender officers within the African Union, for example. Addressing topics like this, however, comes with reprisals. You can do this advocacy in New York, but then when you go home, it comes with real challenges. We’ve had our centres shut down, we’ve had survivors arrested, and we’ve had to work with partners to get resettlement for some people outside of Somalia, just because they were brave enough to talk about the issue.

Adan: It was a challenge, but people eventually listened to us and started talking about it, including the government. They are not in denial anymore, and communities now know it is a problem.

Right Livelihood: What are the current challenges concerning GBV in Somalia? 

Elman: Today, women and girls are also disproportionately affected by climate change and environmental issues and their vulnerabilities are heightened. Somalia is facing another drought and a looming famine, and we see that women and girls are at the highest risk of this. There is a very large military offensive currently happening in Somalia as people are taking back land from Al Shabaab that hasn’t been accessible for years. But what’s been completely overlooked? Where is the protection of women and girls in that process? Do women’s and girls’ lives matter when the armed forces that are liberating them from extremist groups are also raping them? Or do we just look at the gains that they’re making from a security perspective? And these are questions that are unfolding right now in Somalia. How do we hold them to account while pushing for liberation from a security perspective?

Most recently, at the beginning of this year, we were on the brink of some severe political tensions during the very fragile government transition. However, at every opportunity we had for meaningful engagement of women and girls in mediation and reconciliation the patriarchy always rears its head, where it’s men only that get to negotiate and de-escalate armed conflict. So the situation right now in Somalia is that there are a lot of entry points for engagement. There are growing conversations and awareness, but still a lot of limitations in the role that women and girls can play in creating and influencing the processes that ensure their well-being, including protection from sexual violence and conflict perspective. In this sense, it is similar to what we saw 10 years ago, as the decentralisation of access to support and services is still too painfully slow and people still are flocking to the capital cities to seek them.

What’s happening around the world is also affecting Somalia, as global funding is cut for gender equality and justice programmes. Since this vital service delivery is not funded by the Somalian government, we’re in a very challenging situation right now.

Right Livelihood: Going back in time, was the situation similar when you were a child, Faartun? 

Adan: You know, women’s issues have always been there, but they were not as obvious as it is now. In my time, there was not a lot of rape or discrimination. Growing up, we felt like we were like boys, that we could do what they were doing. I grew up like this, and I believe it was also due to education. In my generation, education was free, up to university. We all went to school, and we all wore the same uniform. This is why women my age cannot accept the current situation.  This is not the way we grew up. Schools would teach us not to wear the veil, or if we wanted to, just a small, black one so that it would seem we were not wearing it. The women around me, my mother, and my grandmother were also very strong. If something happened to you, you could go to the police and they would ensure your security. Years later, after the country was destroyed, I saw that the mindset changed, the way we dress, the way we think of a women’s place in society. That’s why we need to go back, we need to learn again that as a woman, there is nothing we can’t do. The challenge is that a whole generation believes the opposite.

Right Livelihood: How has the discourse on gender-based violence and the response changed? 

Adan: In my time, the discourse did not exist. Obviously, there were issues, such as violent husbands, but one could rely on the police or the hospital. Now it is totally different… But I think the mentality is changing. It takes time to get there, but it is changing. I think Somalia needs strong-willed girls to change. Girls like Ilwad, who grew up outside Somalia, have a different way of thinking, but those who never left the country only know the current culture. That’s what we are fighting for: change.

Elman: The culture of shame existed even when there were social services, but back then, the system allowed families to respond quietly to the situation by contacting the police or the hospital and just dealing with it. That’s why it wasn’t a big topic of public debate, whereas now, there is no trust in the police or free services available, but there is a lot of conversation on the topic.

We had worked for many years on the “sexual offences bill” in Somalia. Its adoption was a big success for many civil society organisations because it was actually reviewing the penal code, which didn’t even recognise rape as a crime. It was adopted by parliament but then almost overnight, it was perverted into the “sexual intercourse bill,” which is just another weapon against women and girls. We went from 18 as the age of consent, down to 15 again; from FGM being tackled through a zero-tolerance approach, to being legalised again. While rape was punishable by the last bill, this new one states that only the mentally ill commit rape. So we again use whatever’s in our arsenal to create a debate around this. We started a campaign called “Kill that bill” and gathered more than 50,000 signatures online. We are now still in the process of creating allyship with different women in politics and in parliament to terminate this bill. I think that it’s an ongoing battle globally.

Looking at celebrating the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women and Girls though, there are several initiatives that we are very proud of at a global scale such as the “Every Woman Treaty”, which we co-founded. There are various resolutions, declarations and commitments around the world on sexual violence but a long formal treaty does not exist. So along with hundreds of activists around the world, we’ve been sharing this petition that calls on the international community to develop a treaty on ending violence against women and girls. I think it is a big advocacy point for us to look at on this day. What does another year of celebrating this international day look like? What do another 22 years of resolutions like the UNSC 1325 actually mean, when sexual violence is still indiscriminate and used as a weapon of mass destruction around the world?

Right Livelihood: What do you think is still needed from the international community to effectively address Gender-Based Violence? 

Elman: Protecting the rights of women and girls and ending sexual violence in conflict is currently treated as an optional, second to security or foreign interest… but it should be a fundamental priority. There are still a lot of ways for the international community to engage more effectively in Somalia. For one, it would come down to simply matching the resources to the rhetoric. Recognising that the services are simply not there to protect and promote the rights of women and girls and to actually respond to the violence.

In addition to that, we also need reform and justice in Somalia, which requires investment in education and training, for people to learn how to hold the government to account. We’d also like to see a stronger voice on sexual violence in conflict from the international community, especially in Somalia, making that a central issue of its own and not having it embedded in other issues such as children’s rights. It’s a stand-alone issue of its own. The international community should treat it as such and engage more effectively with governments and civil society. While more and more governments are adopting feminist foreign policies, we need to reflect on what this means in addressing situations such as that of Somalia. It is a great opportunity of recalibrating the conversation of women and girls not as ones that need only protection, but through a policy engagement lens, looking at how to create agency and political participation, investing in their skills and engagement in climate spaces. That’s the kind of forward-looking investments that we want the international community to take note of.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.