Africa Defense Forum
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Somali Women Get $1 Million Prize


A Somali mother and daughter who have dedicated their lives to rehabilitating victims of conflict are gaining international acclaim, receiving a $1 million award.

Fartuun Adan and her daughter Ilwad Elman operate Elman Peace, an organization that helps victims of sexual violence and works to rehabilitate and provide job training to child soldiers in Somalia. 

They were the 2020 recipients of the Aurora Prize for Awakening Humanity, given each year to a person or group risking their lives to protect people in conflict. The award is given on behalf of victims of the Armenian genocide. They are the fifth recipients since the award was created.

The pair created Sister Somalia, the first rape crisis center in the country to offer protection, counseling and medical treatments to victims. In 2010, when the crisis center began its work, Somali politicians, including the president, denied that rape existed in the country. Discussing it was considered taboo.

When the group opened a hotline that victims could call for help, operators received threats of violence from people who did not want the issue discussed.

“Our staff were arrested, harassed. Our centers were shut down. This was just a mere 10 years ago,” Elman said. “There was no profile of what a survivor of sexual violence was like in Somalia then, from a 70-year-old woman to a 2-year-old child. Complete impunity.”

The crisis center has grown to include locally supported facilities in nine regions of Somalia. The issue, once ignored, is now being debated in Parliament by female elected officials.

“We have so far to go, but we came from a place where you couldn’t even talk about it,” Elman said. “There were no services available at all to now having multiple service providers where we have a surge of 11% women participation [in Parliament] to 24%.”

“We have a conversation that actually acknowledges that this is happening in the country,” Elman said. “And now try to figure out what to do about it, as opposed to denying it. So, there’s tremendous progress.”

The family’s activism began with Fartuun Adan’s late husband, Elman Ali Ahmed. A peace activist, he operated auto repair shops in Mogadishu where he offered employment and job training to young people who decided to leave clan-based militias. He was known for his slogan “Drop the gun, pick up the pen.”

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