Halima Aden Shares Her Activism Story, On International Day Of The Girl Child

Halima Aden is committed to giving back. Since the trailblazing Somali-American activist and model first stepped into the spotlight back in 2017 — becoming the first hijab-wearing woman to grace the cover of numerous esteemed magazines, like British Vogue and Allure — she has dedicated herself to empowering underserved communities through partnerships with major brands and organizations.

As a former UNICEF ambassador, Aden used her voice to engage young people across the country and support the organization’s mission to put children first. She brought awareness to programs that save children’s lives, and she used her platform to advocate for children’s rights. Now, she has been proudly working with leading coconut water brand Vita Coco, where she serves as the company’s first-ever chief coconut officer. 

“The biggest part for me was the Vita Coco Project,” Aden tells ESSENCE. “I originally came on board because of the ‘Give, Grow, Guide’ philosophy. It’s our company motto, and it completely represents how I feel about giving back.”

The Vita Coco Project is a social impact initiative that aims to positively impact one million people in coconut farming communities around the world. The company has committed itself to uplifting the farming communities from which its coconuts are sourced by focusing on responsible agriculture, supporting local infrastructure and investing in education through academic scholarships. 


Since the project’s inception in 2014, Vita Coco has built 35 classrooms for the children of coconut farming communities; planted about 70,000 seedlings to replace aging coconut trees and promote biodiversity within coconut farms; and trained nearly 7,000 farmers in agronomic best practices.

“When we say ‘Give, Grow, Guide,’ that’s exactly what we’re doing,” Aden says. “We’re empowering the farmers that we work with that are partners on the ground. We empower them to earn their livelihood, and then that gives them time and space to send their kids to school. Since starting the Vita Coco Project, we’ve seen [school] attendance increase among the kids.”

As a global ambassador and advocate for the Vita Coco Project, Aden has seen the impact of the company’s work firsthand. She visited the coconut farms in the Philippines and helped build a dormitory for the children of coconut farming communities.

“In the Philippines, there’s a huge wealth gap. The majority of the people that live there are farmers. This [initiative] gives them the hope that their children are getting educated, which a lot of these farmers didn’t have for themselves,” she continued. “The goal for us is that [the children] are enriched, they are educated. I love that we can cross different countries, different cultures, different farming styles, so it’s just an all-around incredible project to [be a part of].”

“I’m most proud of the life that I’m living now.”

In addition to working with Vita Coco, Aden traveled to Zambia earlier this year to support refugee education. She has partnered with Cavendish University Zambia and United Nations Commission for Refugees to highlight the importance of education for refugees, and help launch innovative solutions that will expand access to college education for refugees in Zambia. 

“Just like the Vita Coco Project, I wanted to see that work continue on in my other projects, which is why I came on board for the Zambia trip. What really drew me to it is the fact that Cavendish University has accepted over 200 refugees and given them scholarships to [access] higher education,” she tells ESSENCE. “They’re pioneering this other way of giving back, which speaks to the power of education and having knowledge.”

In 2011, the United Nations declared October 11 as International Day of the Girl Child, which “focuses attention on the need to address the challenges girls face and to promote girls’ empowerment and the fulfillment of their human rights.” As a former refugee born in one of the largest refugee camps in the world, Aden understands the importance of education and opportunity for girls and young women like herself. 

“Educating one girl has the potential to uplift so many others,” she says. “I love the fact that we have days like that to highlight some of the plights that these girls have to go through and what we could be doing to empower them, especially in the field of education. That’s something that means so much to me. I just know we’re headed down a good path.”

After leaving the fashion industry in 2020, Aden came back the following year with a clearer vision and purpose. She executive produced I Am You, a powerful film that she says “was another visual way to tell my own story and the stories of the 85 million refugees that are currently struggling.” She has partnered with modest fashion retailer Modanisa to create her own hijab line, and Snapchat to focus on mental health in the youth. She is also an ambassador for Goal 8, the UN’s “Decent Work and Economic Growth” project. 

“Part of the reason why I left the modeling industry is because it was very much about being seen and not heard. And I have a message, I have a story that resonates with so many people in the communities in which I came from,” the 25-year-old says. “God gave me a purpose, because he would not have made my family the one percent of refugees that get to resettle in a country like America.”

Aden is well-known for challenging stereotypical beauty standards, breaking boundaries in the fashion industry and encouraging more inclusivity of hijab-wearing, Muslim models. She hopes to continue to use her unique story, platform and voice to further inspire and uplift refugees, women and girls, and other marginalized communities through her ongoing social activism work. 

“I think [I’m most proud of] the life that I’m living now,” Aden says. “It took tremendous bravery to quit modeling in high fashion. It’s not something that models do, and it’s definitely unexpected for a former refugee to walk away from that type of lifestyle. That should show you how committed I am to the work that I’m doing today, which is bridging these big companies and finding ways that we can work together to empower the communities.”

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