Need for a gender perspective in the fight against terror

Kenya and the world at large are still struggling with how to deal with the complex problem of terrorism. Statistics show that since 2012, over 600 people have been killed in a series of attacks across the country. Al-Shabaab, the terror group based in Somalia has taken responsibility for most of these attacks.

Roughly 25 per cent of Al Shabaab’s forces are said to be Kenyan. This is because recruitment to the militant group has been made easy. Al Shabaab, an Arabic word translates to ‘the youth’, a fitting name for an organization that feeds off limited opportunities for young people in the region. Many of them both, men and women are attracted by the high salaries it offers for new recruits. While the social perception differs, the motivating factors for women to become perpetrators of violence are same.

In March, a former madrassa teacher and a lawyer belonging to the Al Shabaab led a terror attack at the University of Garissa that left 142 students killed. The two are believed to have been radicalized while in school.

In a separate incident, two Kenyan women students who had been reported missing are said to have informed their families that they had travelled to Syria to join the Islamic State Organization (ISIS), a terror group. One was a part-time teacher at a local girls’ high school. This highlights a gap as far as scrutinizing educators and school curricula, including programmes and activities in places of learning and worship.

Despite the increase in number of women involved in terrorist and counter-terrorist activities, they still are deemed to be the preserve of men. Contrary to the belief that women are passive in terror activities, in reality, they have the skills and strengths to be involved in both terrorism and counterterrorism.

Professor Ambassador Maria Nzomo, Director of Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies at University of Nairobi argues that the fact that women exist in a patriarchal society does not mean that they are homogenous.


“Patriarchy by ascribing passive roles distorts how the society understands the agency of women. More often than not individual capabilities are downplayed,” says Nzomo.

While terrorists are united in their cause, more often than not the women’s agency is divided on what they want as an end result in counter terrorism efforts. This is especially when they are directly affected by radicalization of people close to them.

“The responsibility to monitor youth radicalization in families should not be a preserve of women alone but rather a shared role in the community,” observes Nzomo.” She notes: “Don’t fall back to the old narrative that women are a problem to be resolved; violent extremism concerns all in society.”

Nzomo’s comments come at a time when there numerous reports show that violent radicalization is slowly taking root on different social media platforms. These avenues are being used to recruit young girls into the organization as it is believed that they receive less scrutiny from security agencies.


Hawa Noor from the Institute for Security Studies Africa concurs arguing that counterterrorist initiatives should move beyond religious spaces to include women as active players as well as into social media and public forums platforms.

“The narrative of extremism has to be changed for anti- radicalization efforts to work especially in regard to collectively punishing religious groups such as Muslims since this is not a religious war,” Noor explains.

Abjata Khalif, chairperson Kenya Pastoralists Journalist Network applauds the move by Kenya Government to provide amnesty to youth who have been radicalized upon surrender saying it is great step as it will bring back radicalized girls and boys to their families.

“Most families in Northern Kenya have lost a boy or girl to the recruitment. However the families do not report who is indirectly facilitating the recruitment,” says Khalif. He notes: “Many of them who had been radicalized have realized that terrorism is barbaric and anti-Islamic and want to surrender.”

Renouncing terrorism is not enough. It is important to combine it with rehabilitation to ensure the young men and women are equipped with alternative livelihood skills to ease their journey to reforming.

“The local County government should not just collect inside information from those who surrender but also offer them some sort of training to equip the young people with skills that will help them for a better future,” explains Khalif. He notes: “To deal with distrust that citizens have towards security forces, there should be no victimization as well.”

Harassment of family members by security forces during operations as they attempt to arrest terrorists leads distrust by the community towards the government.

“In North Eastern, says Khalif, a large percentage of the population is comprised of women and girls as men are away in other parts of the country working.

“These raids affect them most. More often than not they choose to turn a blind to suspicious activities around them,” observes Khalif.

An assurance of protection from Al Shabaab to those who have reformed is critical for counter-terrorism efforts to be effective. Additionally, involving religious, community and women leaders will attract more radicalized youth to the programme.

Currently, among other organizations fighting radicalization is Frontier Indigenous Network, an award winning women’s organization that has effectively broken cultural barriers that limit women’s participation by being at the forefront of counter-terrorism activists.

Frontier Indigenous Network has been working to mobilize to denounce terrorist activities in all spaces at its disposal.