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Right Livelihood Award

“Peace is more than the absence of war”

Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman are the recipients of this year’s Right Livelihood Award, also known as the alternative Nobel Prize. Before the awards ceremony, the two activists spoke at UZH about their humanitarian activities in Somalia, a country beset by civil war.
Patrizia Widmer


Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman in front of the University of Zurich.
Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman gave a moving talk at UZH as part of the Right Livelihood Lecture series.

“Somalia is suffering,” said Fartuun Adan during her talk at UZH. In a stirring lecture, she and her daughter Ilwad Elman reported on the over 30-year civil war in Somalia as well as the ongoing drought in the country. Four rainy seasons have not come to pass, and aid organizations have been warning of a famine for months. Grain deliveries are also heavily restricted because of the war in Ukraine, and the terrorist militia Al-Shabaab makes it difficult for international aid to reach the people.

Picking up the pieces

Fartuun Adan was born in Somalia, in the capital Mogadishu in 1969. In 1990, she co-founded the organization Elman Peace with her husband Ali Ahmed Elman with the goal of contributing to stability and peace in the country.

The civil war that had broken out in the early 1990s, however, continued to escalate. Amid the chaos, Adan and her three daughters fled to Kenya while her husband remained in Somalia. According to Adan, the warlords didn’t approve of his activities: “They told him many times, you have to stop what you’re doing. He didn’t listen. In 1996, they assassinated him. So I went to Canada.” Adan’s connection to her home country remained, however. “I always told my three girls: when you get older, I’ll go back and I’m going to pick up the pieces,” she says.

In 2006, the time had come, and Adan resolutely re-dedicated herself to the work of Elman Peace. She decided to focus on Somalian women and children, who continue to suffer from the brutality of the war to this day.

Inspired by her mother

All of Adan’s daughters followed in her activist footsteps, becoming involved in promoting peace in the country of their birth. Iman Elman, the youngest of the three, has been working on the rights of women in the Somalian army since 2011. Adan’s eldest daughter, Almaas Elman, was a diplomat. She was killed in Mogadishu in 2019.

Ilwad, the middle child, followed her mother to Somalia in 2010 and has been working for Elman Peace ever since. Despite her grief over the loss of her family members, she remains proud: “I think we have all been contributing to the same goal of a peaceful transition out of conflict, but from very different angles, from diplomacy to military to activism.”

Helping child soldiers rejoin society

Resocializing former child soldiers is one of Elman Peace’s current humanitarian focus areas. In Somalia, girls and boys are torn from their families, often under threat or use of violence. According to Fartuun Adan, the families aren’t able to defend themselves properly because they fear radical Islamic terror groups.

To help these children as quickly as possible, Elman Peace struck an agreement with the government: every child captured on the front must be handed over to the organization within 72 hours. Elman Peace then takes care of the children and provides them with secure shelter. Later, they receive individual schooling and skills training for the job market. The reintegration of the children into society is another priority of the organization.

In addition to helping former child soldiers, the activists also run a home for children who have been abandoned. Many babies are left on the street as the result of unwanted pregnancies – one of the many consequences of the many rapes that women are subjected to in the war-torn country.

Supporting victims of sexual violence

With Somalian women on the run from war and violence, they are particularly vulnerable to sexual assault – sadly a frequent occurence. Many crimes go unpunished in the East African country due to its weak legal system.

Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Elman founded the first crisis center for rape victims in Somalia, where survivors are provided with sex-specific support. Today, there are a total of eight centers in different regions of the country that offer psychosocial counseling and emergency medical care. The centers also offer legal aid, secure accommodation and skills training for the victims.

Not waiting on charity

Ilwad Elman summarized the comprehensive aid services offered by Elman Peace: “We want to be the support system that’s not provided by the state. Many of the things that we do should be government functions: access to health, education, protection.”

She says that as women, they face additional obstacles in carrying out some of their work. For instance, they don’t have much of a role to play when it comes to fighting terrorism: military and security issues are seen primarily as the domain of men. “I think one of the things I’ve learned from my mother is leadership from behind,” says Elman.

When asked whether they fear for their safety, Elman states plainly, “We leave our house every day thinking not is something going to happen, but when?”

Despite the enormous difficulties, the two women still burn with passion for their work in Somalia and emphasize that they have signed up for it voluntarily. They could leave the conflict-plagued country behind but choose not to. When Elman spends time in Canada, even briefly, she says she feels immense pressure to return to Somalia. She can achieve much more by being on the ground. Despite everything, she sees great potential: “There’s so much hope and momentum in Somalia.” There are a lot of grassroots movements in the country, she says, but most ideas haven’t made it out of the pilot phase thus far. “People in Somalia are not waiting for charity,” she emphasizes. “But for investment.”

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