Women Aren’t Your Informants: Evaluating True Participation for Women in CVE

Liban Abdullah Omar (not pictured), who was found innocent of supporting the Westgate Mall attack in Sept. 2013, is seen off by his sister, Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 7, 2020.(AP Photo/Brian Inganga)

There has been a consistent call to include gender in counterterrorism (CT) and “preventing and countering violent extremism” (P/CVE) policies and programs. While there are a few examples at the policy level of how to integrate gender into CT and P/CVE, at the local level, there is even less known about what it looks like to incorporate gender into CVE programs.

To relate the experiences of local actors working on gender and P/CVE, Rehema Zaid, an activist in Kenya, spoke with Phoebe Donnelly, Head of the Women, Peace and Security program at the International Peace Institute. Rehema Zaid is a Kenyan peacebuilder working with national civil society organizations and international networks on issues of gender and countering violent extremism (CVE).

CT and P/CVE seem to be one of Kenya’s key priorities during its turn as a member of the UN Security Council. Ambassador Martin Kimani, Kenya’s Permanent Representative to the UN, was previously the President’s Special Envoy for Countering Violent Extremism and the Director of Kenya’s National Counterterrorism Centre. Of particular concern within Kenya, and across the region, is the Islamist insurgent group al-Shabaab, formed in Somalia in 2006. Al-Shabaab has launched high-profile attacks within Kenya, including the attack at the Westgate Mall (2013), Garissa University (2015), and the DusitD2 Hotel and Business Complex (2019).

In addition to Kenya’s focus on CT and P/CVE within the UN, Kenya will also be President of the UN Security Council in October 2021 for the Annual Open Debate on Women, Peace and Security.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Can you start by telling me about your work within Kenya related to gender and preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE)? How do you interact with local, national, and international actors?

I work with women at the grassroots level in Kenya. When I started, I realized most of these women are not being engaged in P/CVE work. It is like the society felt, at that time, that key roles in P/CVE programs should only be for men, and women should be engaged in other activities related to the programs, but not in a leadership or decision-making capacity.

I then began working on a program with the US embassy on women and P/CVE, and was able to educate women on P/CVE so they can understand the basics, including how to detect early warning signs, especially when they interact with their kids at home and the community at large.

I have also been working closely with the National Cohesion and Integration Commission, and take the lead in certain P/CVE programs across Nairobi. For example, I am working on the implementation of a P/CVE program focused on prevention of election violence.

How are women incorporated into P/CVE programs in Kenya?

Women’s role in P/CVE programs is influenced by the existing gender stereotypes within Kenya. There is a belief that men should take the upper hand in this type of work. People want women to play a narrow and restricted role in P/CVE. Women are seen as secondary and viewed as synonymous to youth, which leads to women and youth being treated similarly. Most people working in P/CVE just call on women when they want information from the community. For example, when there is a problem in a community, P/CVE experts want women to speak and mobilize. When P/CVE experts are starting a program or there is a security challenge, the first person donors will contact is a woman. But when the program has taken shape, the women are no longer important.

Women’s participation in P/CVE is envisioned with them serving as spies. Women are restricted to mobilization roles within the community, serving in their roles as mothers and in securitized roles like gathering intelligence from the community. When women do report threats around violent extremism, they don’t have someone to protect them. It is challenging for women to report because they don’t know who might be listening. The women question if it is the police hearing the threat or members of a terror group. This can put women at risk of attacks by members of terrorist groups, because they live within our communities. Women have to know their own boundaries and how far they can go, because they do not have the tools, weapons, or financial resources to protect themselves.

In your mind, what are the specific goals of P/CVE programs in Kenya that have a gender focus?

The focus has been on women’s participation in P/CVE, but I feel “participation” is too vague. The goals of the programs are to increase the number of women participating in P/CVE work, but the kind of support needed to help women be able to participate effectively is not there. Women need to have meaningful engagement and be involved at every phase of programming and not just to be there to fill in the registration list or be a tick in the statistics. The people designing the programs want women to participate, but very little has been done to provide an enabling environment for that participation. From my experience, and the experience of other women I work with, we feel it is just rhetoric.

The programs on mothers are good considering their role as the first line of defense in nurturing their children, but some of the engagements—for instance, sharing sensitive information within their community/home—can be risky. The programs that focus on women playing a security role, viewing women as informants about what is going on in their homes and communities, need to ensure that the security of these women is assured.

What do you think policymakers misunderstand about the gender dimensions of P/CVE?

Maybe the intention of the people who drafted the policy was good, but when it trickles down, the people implementing the policies are influenced by their biases about women. Within some communities and cultures in Africa, the belief is that a woman’s place is in the kitchen, and that is our reality. Women are expected not to talk, and men are the ones who should be heard. When it comes to implementation, there is a problem around beliefs—around masculinity and the idea that men should be leading P/CVE programs. It is a real struggle for women, even for strong women like myself—sometimes I feel like I don’t know what else to do. Like I should just take a break from this work. Women are trying to give so much to a society that doesn’t recognize their effort.

There is an unspoken belief that men should be in charge. It is seen in the actions of the people in our community and the people we interact with. In many instances, you see people want women’s brains or presence in implementing programs, but there is an unwillingness to give leadership roles to women, even to those who are educated, honest, and have the necessary qualifications. People prefer working with men. That is our reality, and it takes a lot of effort for a woman to take a leadership role or implement a program, especially at the higher level. People believe women have to play a contributory role. When women are only given low-ranking roles in P/CVE programs, it affirms gender stereotypes, especially viewing women primarily as caregivers.

How has P/CVE work affected civil society organizations (especially women’s groups)?

You will find very few women-led civil society organizations that are taking the lead in P/CVE. I applaud the US embassy in Kenya, as they have acknowledged these challenges and are really trying to support women. But the US embassy alone cannot carry this load. It needs to be something that is done by others. There are a lot of training programs for women, but women continue to ask, what comes after the training program? Women are told they are the first line of defense against P/CVE, but then what? Women are trained, and after the training, when it comes to recognition, the women don’t get it.

Additionally, funding for women’s programs is minimal. Donors seem to have more confidence in male-led civil society organizations. This is evident in how they distribute funding and leadership positions in P/CVE work. Women are not in competition with men in this space, but there needs to be a level playing field between women and men’s organizations, so we have the opportunity to complement each other’s work.

Does being affiliated with CVE put women’s groups at risk?

It depends on how you implement your programs. If the program applies the “do no harm approach,” you don’t appear like someone who is taking sides. When you start with your broad goals being about peace and inclusivity, then it is safer. But if you appear like you are a spy, or taking sides, or segregating people based on religious lines or affiliations with certain tribes, then you can have a problem. If you appear to be neutral, you will face less risk and fewer problems.

Is it harder to be neutral if affiliated with international governments working on CVE?

It depends on where you are. Over time, the US embassy has worked hard to restore its public image. There was a time we could go with a US embassy team from New York or Washington DC to a P/CVE hot spot like Majengo (in Nairobi), and we would be welcomed. We would even go without security. However, P/CVE is an evolving field, and one incident can affect the other, so I am not sure about the current environment.

In what ways can the way policymakers and practitioners think about P/CVE programming and policy and its intersection with gender be improved?

I think it is more about the implementation of programs. Policymakers and program leads need to be more critical by looking at the gender dynamics within the P/CVE programs; for example, there has to be data. Everything should be supported by data so that we have a true picture of how many women are taking P/CVE leadership roles, how many women have gotten funding (and at what level). Also, there has to be an effort to identify the barriers that are hampering the successful implementation of good policies on the ground. If we have research related to our programming, we would be able to understand some of the loopholes.

How can CVE policy be more responsive to local voices and marginalized groups (women and other minorities)? How would it benefit P/CVE policies to incorporate these perspectives?

To be honest, in Kenya, there has been a great effort in terms of coming up with good policies. Initially, we had the National Counterterrorism Strategy, which now has a gender pillar, and then our president gave an order for each county to come up with a county action plan. Initially, the National Counterterrorism Strategy was missing a gender pillar, but we worked with Women in International Security in Kenya to lobby the government to include one. Since then, a number of counties have tried to come up with a gender pillar in their county action plans.

I would still go back to the problem of implementation. In Kenya, we have very good policies. The international community talks a lot about how women can be supported more effectively, and the policies are good, but we need to diagnose what is happening on the ground. Why is there still an outcry from women at the local level? People say women do not have a good education, but women are working hard to get an education, and even when they do, they are still perceived as people who should play a smaller role in this field.

It is also essential that peace and security projects are inclusive of the diverse categories of women, including rural women, women living with disabilities and other special conditions and needs, women of diverse ages, and women from minority and marginalized communities.

Anything else you would like to share about the P/CVE space in Kenya?

There is a disconnect between the people, the women on the ground, and the policymakers. Women are saying a lot, but it doesn’t reach the policymakers. There has to be a deliberate effort to ensure that there is a channel in which policymakers are able to hear the voices of women. The outcry of women should not be neglected. I believe women are at the center stage of P/CVE. Women are doing a lot, and if they suddenly say they don’t want anything to do with P/CVE work, there will be a big problem. The women I work with are tired of being used for the business of CVE.

What would progress for women in the P/CVE space look like?

I want to see women civil society organizations get funding and support. Women want to be innovators who begin processes and are involved at all levels, right from the start of designing programming. Women don’t just want to be hijacked. It becomes a matter of statistics, such as, “we have engaged 500 women,” but at what level were women involved, and for what purpose? There are misconceptions about gender mainstreaming, where most people assume it is simply about adding more women. Gender is downplayed and viewed as a “women’s issue” instead of it being used to address core structural issues. Women have always felt like they were doing this for other people; that it is not ours, it is for other people, it is for the men.

We need a re-thinking of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda so it goes beyond tokenism. Previously, women were so passionate to go to workshops and seminars, but when women are marginalized, it makes them go to workshops and seminars only to get bus fares because they have an economic need, but the women know they are not viewed as an important stakeholder.

Finally, good data on gender dynamics related to the P/CVE space and programming is crucial because it leads to evidence-based programming and policy.