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Ilwad Elman

Ilwad Elman – Including youth is a priority

Extremely Together’s Young Leader from Somalia, who works to deradicalise members of Al Shabaab and promote gender equality in Africa.

Our world today is a complex place with more man-made conflicts now than ever before in history. Violent extremism affects us all and often our motivations to act against violent extremism and to join the fight for peace develop from our personal experiences. What initially compelled me to become involved in peacebuilding was a personal and significant loss to violent extremism.

I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia a few years before the civil war erupted. My mother, my two sisters and I fled the conflict whilst my father stayed behind. He remained in Somalia to dedicate his life to ending the war; his approach to building peace was directly engaging with those involved in the fighting. He launched a campaign to disengage youth who were co-opted into clan militias by the warlords at the time and was successfully reaching thousands through his “Drop the Gun, Pick up the Pen” initiative. Youth from all corners of the country began realizing there were safe, dignified alternatives to armed conflict and as a result began abandoning their posts. The warlords fueling the conflict also took note of his efforts which were dismantling their clan-based militias and countering the messages of hate and divide they preached to radicalize and entice youth. My father was eventually killed for his unrelenting commitment to peace.

Decades later the conflict still rages on in my country and although the factions of war have changed, the dominating role of youth being used as tools to perpetuate conflict has not. I decided to leave the comforts and safety of Canada, where I grew up, to return to Somalia in 2010 to explore what role I could play in the transition out of conflict.

When considering how to engage and empower women for countering violent extremism, policy makers must understand the varied roles women play in this space.

I now co-lead the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre with a broad portfolio focusing on Human Rights, Gender Justice, Protection of Civilians, Countering Violent Extremism & Peace Building. We have developed programs which tackle the social, political, religious, educational and economic grievances of youth specifically designed to deter disenfranchised or at-risk youth from joining violent extremists groups. For the large demographic who have already become radicalized and joined extremists groups, we support their disengagement, rehabilitation and reintegration into society.

I intend to contribute my experiences of working with former extremists to the Extremely Together debate by sharing examples of youth who have completed the programs I run and have gone on to play a leading role in preventing further recruitment in their own communities and have countered the harmful narratives of extremists groups by sharing their own experiences of the reality from inside the group. I strongly believe the grievances that drive youth to join violent extremists groups are not the same as the ones keeping them there; and more often than not, they want and need help getting out.

Although there have been numerous commitments and declarations made by world leaders in recent years emphasizing the importance of youth in Countering Violent Extremism; our role is still often limited to implementing partners, at best, on policies and strategies. Through the Extremely Together initiative, I believe youth have an opportunity to deconstruct the silos that exist in countering violent extremism and show why including youth meaningfully is not an optional second, but a fundamental priority to end extremism.