SDG16+ Champions of Change

The peace activist fighting for women’s rights in Somalia


Champions of Change is an initiative started by the Pathfinders to highlight advocates who have made an impact in their communities and have helped to create peaceful, just and inclusive societies (SDG16+). It provides an opportunity to feature individuals, businesses, and organizations doing extraordinary things to empower and inspire members of their communities. As part of the Movement to Halve Violence by 2030, hear from Champions who have made building peaceful societies their cause and mission in life, and learn what you can do to join them!

Born in Somalia, Ilwad Elman spent her childhood in Canada before returning to Somalia in 2010. Together with her mother, Fartuun Adan, she currently leads the Elman Peace Centre, which promotes and establishes durable solutions for peace, with a focus on cultivating leadership and amplifying the agency of vulnerable groups.

Ilwad has received numerous international awards recognizing her work for peace activism, has advised the UN Secretary-General’s Peacebuilding Fund and is a board member of UNICEF’s Generation Unlimited, as well as several other UN expert groups.

We spoke with Ilwad Elman to learn more about her work and what drives her:

What ignited your pursuit for safe and peaceful societies?

Both of my parents were human rights activists. My father was killed in Somalia, just as my mother, my sisters, and I were trying to settle in Canada to escape the fighting in Mogadishu. As a result, I grew up with this inherent understanding of my family’s legacy and the responsibility to fight for the causes I believe in. It was never prescribed whether that meant going back to Somalia or doing activism in Canada, but we always had strong encouragement that there was a bigger purpose for us. When my mother decided to return to Somalia to relaunch our center, I was inspired to join her as soon as I finished my studies, and have been in Somalia ever since.

To achieve a peaceful, just, and inclusive world, what does success look like to you? And what are the key factors in achieving this vision?

To achieve success in creating more peaceful, just and inclusive societies, we must create a world, an environment where every girl can choose her future — whether it is through the increased representation of women in decision-making processes, our equal participation in conflict resolution processes, or the fact that girls’ education is one of humankind’s best tools to mitigate the threat-multiplying climate change. That is why I look at the Elman Peace Centre’s Sister Somalia program for the protection of gender-based violence survivors and at our launching Girls Leadership Academy as peacebuilding activities too.

How does your work significantly reduce and prevent violence?

The Elman Peace Center has been in existence for more than three decades, and through a variety of programs, it provides support to those in need and those who strive to create more enabling and peaceful environments. Some of those programs include rehabilitation of former child soldiers, support for gender-based violence survivors, jobs and skills training, leadership training, among others.

How has COVID-19 impacted your work? Are there any lessons learned from the pandemic that you hope to apply in future work?

We had to adjust certain aspects of our programming and temporarily adopted a hybrid distance education approach for some of our educational and vocational training programs. By far, the biggest impact of COVID-19, as is the case sadly in many regions of the world, has been the significant increase of rape cases in Somalia that perpetuate an already existing gender-based violence epidemic.

However, if there are any lessons to draw from the pandemic it is that, once again, local organizations that have stayed on the ground throughout the pandemic and had the necessary trust and access in the communities, were capable of doing the work that needed to be done. After many years of discussion around this fact, global funding structures and policy designs should finally reflect this.

What advice do you have for those seeking to make a difference for a more peaceful world?

Trust the expertise and capabilities of local communities more. Much more.