Founders of Somalia’s First Rape Crisis Center Recognized for Helping Conflict Victims

WASHINGTON - As the United Nations on Sunday marks International Day of the Girl Child, a Somali mother and daughter who have dedicated their lives to rehabilitating victims of conflict are gaining international acclaim.

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 have been honored with a $1 million prize.

They are 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 and will take part in a virtual ceremony on Oct. 19.

“They give people a second chance, hope for the future, and inspiration to lead a meaningful life. Their courage, self-sacrifice, altruism, idealism, as well as actions on the ground, reflect the values of the global Aurora movement,” said Vartan Gregorian, president of Carnegie Corporation of New York and co-founder of the Aurora Humanitarian Initiative.

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.

“The human suffering of women and girls was so tolerated, was so normalized, that it was an open secret in society,” Ilwad Elman told VOA via a Skype interview.

When the group opened a hotline where 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%.”

However, there are setbacks as the Somali Federal Parliament is working to adopt a Sexual Intercourse Related Crimes Bill this year. And the U.N. has expressed “deep concern,” said Pramila Patten, the U.N. Secretary-General’s Special Representative on Sexual Violence in Conflict. The bill “breaches international and regional standards for criminal legislation relating to rape and other forms of sexual violence.”

“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.”

He was assassinated in broad daylight in 1996. And the family recently endured additional loss, highlighting the risk that comes with the nature of their work. The elder sister of Ilwad Elman, Almaas Elman, was shot to death in 2019. She was inside a car in a heavily guarded area of Mogadishu called the Halane camp.

Today, Elman Peace runs the Drop the Gun, Pick Up the Pen initiative, which offers counseling services and job training to young people who leave armed groups. Many they help have left the extremist group al-Shabab.

“When you hear al-Shabab, you expect the worst, but when you stay with them and see how they are playing or learning, they are just children. They need a chance for a new life,” Adan said in a video by the Aurora Prize.

Today, they have an agreement with the government that any child who is apprehended or surrenders may be eligible to be transferred to one of the Elman Peace centers within 72 hours. There, ex-fighters can learn skills like cellphone or auto repair.

“We want to give them an alternative that is peaceful, and less fighters means less fighting,” said Ilwad Elman in the video.




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