SDG16+ Champions of Change

The Somali soldier fighting for gender equality


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 Mogadishu, Somalia, and raised in Ottawa, Canada, Lt. Col. Elman returned to Somalia in 2011 to join the Somali National Army in the fight against the violent extremist organization Al-Shabaab. Working her way up in the ranks of the Army over many years, Iman Elman’s most recent promotion to Lieutenant Colonel and appointment as the Chief of Planning and Strategy made her the youngest and only female department head in the Somali Armed Forces.

She is a champion for inclusive security sector reform and an innovator for new approaches to countering terrorism at the Horn of Africa. Through her daily work, Lt. Col. Elman continues to challenge stereotypes by being on the frontlines, commanding operations, responding to violent extremism, and promoting inclusive peace and security for all.

We spoke with Lt. Col. Elman to learn more about her work and what drives her:

What ignited your pursuit for safe and peaceful societies?

I was so hyper-focused on this negative notion that surrounded and still surrounds “womanhood” in Somalia: this ridiculously flawed stigma that a woman is less than a man. I want to fundamentally alter people’s perceptions of what women can do, and shift the paradigms towards a shared belief that women should be an essential and leading part of the security sector; a field that is so important for our country’s future yet currently almost exclusively male-dominated.

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?

One key factor that I focus on is the equal inclusion of female officers and soldiers on all levels of military planning and operation. I know from my very practical experience that all our soldiers, our communities, our country is safer when women are included in the decision making and implementation of matters on countering violent extremism and national security.

However, this is not easy. From day one in the military, I was non-stop confronted with people who could not see past my gender. Rather than focusing on my capabilities and skills, colleagues, superiors, or the general public would focus on the fact that I am a woman. Amongst other negative impacts, this has led to the denial of countless opportunities and professional growth in my work field due to my gender.

How does your work significantly reduce and prevent violence?

As a member of Somali National Army, I am on the frontlines of fighting against violent extremist and terrorist groups such as al-Shabaab.

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

COVID-19 has had a significant impact on my work as well as the overall fight against extremism in Somalia since we have been unable to carry out various military operations and community stabilization efforts in areas that had been newly recovered from Al-Shabaab. Instead, many of our efforts had to shift to now focus on controlling the spread of COVID-19.

I think it is a bit early to talk about lessons learned, but COVID-19 did underline the importance of looking at the intersection between health and security. While this was a topic on global policy agendas previously, I think we have learned that a lot of those approaches ought to be more localized.

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

The importance of structure and scenario-based planning? (laughs) I don’t know, but I feel maybe some practitioners and policymakers can learn a bit on that front from the military, as I am sure we can still learn many things from them.