The Sister Somalia Story
What can a small army of committed grassroots women hope to accomplish for devastated women in the world’s most failed state, half a world away? Almost anything, as seen by Sister Somalia. The key to success? Empower dauntless local leaders like Somalia’s Fartun Abdisalaan Adan and her 22 year-old daughter, Ilwad Elman, to design and direct their own program addressing critical needs in their own community.
To say Sister Somalia began simply is an understatement.
Global women’s activist Lisa Shannon had been haunted for years by Somalia. But the policy experts she asked about working there flatly dismissed the idea with “Nobody goes to Mogadishu.” Then veteran aid worker Katy Grant, an intrepid mother of three who had traveled to Mogadishu over 40 times, twice when pregnant, introduced Lisa to Fartuun.
At the time, most of Mogadishu and Somalia was dominated by al Shabaab, a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist militia associated with al Qaeda. Forcing women and girls into ‘temporary marriage’ with Shabaab was commonplace. Any woman or family member who complained or resisted was summarily beheaded, stoned or shot to death.
Sister Somalia was born during an intense period of suicide bombings in early July 2011. Katy and Lisa flew into Mogadishu to meet with Fartuun and 40 rape victims and to hear their stories. With 30 pledges of $10 a month and handwritten notes of encouragement for the women attending that first meeting, Lisa promised to raise $120,000 to fund the program’s first year. Katy’s organization, Prism Partnerships, would receive donations, dispense funds, vet operations and expenditures.
Fartuun and Ilwad mobilized immediately. They hired and trained courageous community outreach and education teams, initiated emergency relocation grants, provided psyco-social counseling, made medical assessments and treatment referrals, developed vocational training, business starter kits and gave grants for the women and girls who came to them.
Within weeks of launching the program, news of Somalia’s famine broke and was dominating international headlines. Hundreds of thousands of famine victims were streaming into camps in and around Mogadishu, adding to Sister Somalia’s program needs, intensifying demand, and complicating outreach issues.
Fartuun was sought out by major international media outlets. Her interviews focused global awareness of the scale and frequency that Somali women were being sexually attacked in camps housing those displaced by famine. In other words, Fartuun, Ilwad and Sister Somalia shifted the global conversation on rape in Somalia by generating one that had never before existed.
Over the next year, al Shabaab was gradually driven out of power and a new Somali government was elected in August of 2012. Fartuun and Ilwad also began chairing Mogadishu’s Gender Based Violence Case Management Group, working for more coordinated and comprehensive community resources to address GBV, which was instrumental in getting the new government to acknowledge rape as an issue.
While helping 2,000 women and girls rebuild their lives, Fartuun and Ilwad also worked relentlessly for long term societal changes, driving for new structures to protect and serve women and girls as Somalia began emerging from chaos. They did it all while facing threats of being killed for their efforts, and knowing just how real the risks are, since Fartuun’s husband, Ilwad’s father, had been assassinated for his human rights work in 1996.
Recognizing the quality of the Sister Somalia program, major philanthropic foundations and international agencies like the U.N. began partnering with Sister Somalia and the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre. Today, an expanded annual budget of a million dollars is in place due to those partnerships. Plans are underway to expand services beyond Mogadishu, so rural Somali women will have resources after sexual attack.
Given the excellence of the Sister Somalia program and that it is fully vetted by its other international partners, full ownership of every aspect of the Sister Somalia program is now being transferred to Fartuun and the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre, a Canadian non-profit.
Your donations today continue to provide emergency relocation grants, vocational training, and business starter kits and grants for the ever increasing numbers of women seeking Sister Somalia’s help.
To all of Sister Somalia’s early supporters, men as well as women, who have joined us in going where no one else would to help the women and girls of Somalia, we thank you!
You have launched Fartuun Adan and Ilwad Ali on the international stage as powerful voices for the women of Somalia at a critical moment in history. You have funded their relentless courage and tenacious efforts, and helped to provide them enough international exposure to serve as a measure of protection against the death threats they receive. You have given hope and a foundation for life, not only to the thousands of women and girls we serve directly, but to all women of Somalia.
Thank you for standing resolutely behind Fartuun, Ilwad, and all those who operate on the front lines in Somalia, speaking out and working for new and more secure possibilities for women and girls there.