Credit: GIN photo

With backbends and downward dogs, Ilwad Elman has been helping former child soldiers and rape survivors overcome their trauma.

It’s called “Yogadishu”—a combination of yoga and Mogadishu. An alternative mental health technique, the therapy aims to break down walls of silence and begin the healing process.

“We keep our doors open for those who want to gather and a safe space to do so,” says Elman, winner of the 2020 German Africa prize for humanitarian work in her homeland.

Ilwad’s father—an engineer, entrepreneur and social activist—had been an ardent peace activist in the 1990s, coining the famous mantra in Somalia: “Drop the Gun, Pick up the Pen.” He was assassinated in 1996 for his human rights work and is known to this day as the Somali Father of Peace.

As violence grew in Somalia, Elman, her mother and sisters fled into exile in Canada. After 10 years, the family contemplated a return to the Horn of Africa. Ilwad didn’t speak the local language and the hardships of living in a war-torn country were unfamiliar and difficult for her.

But her mother—a strong human rights activist and a fierce custodian of her husband’s legacy—was determined to go back even at the height of the conflict. “From her I learned that you could be anything and everything you wanted to be as a woman,” said Elman.

“That is not a message woman and girls hear in Somalia. But my mother empowered, encouraged and challenged me to do more and be more,” Elman said. The family returned to Somalia in 2010 and rebuilt the father’s project to reintegrate child soldiers and civil war orphans into Somali society.

In addition to her work with the Elman Peace and Human Rights Center, Elman runs Sister Somalia, the first rape crisis center in Somalia. It was established to support survivors of sexual and gender based violence to rebuild and reclaim their lives.

Elman is also part of the Kofi Annan Foundation’s Extremely Together initiative, which mobilizes political will to overcome threats to peace, development and human rights. For two years, she was the youngest consultant for the U.N.’s Peacebuilding Fund. She was also voted one of the 100 Most Influential Young Africans for 2020, organized by the Ghana-based Africa Youth Awards group.