What draws Kenyan women to join al-Shabab and what challenges are they facing when they return to their communities?
Youth unemployment has been described as a ticking time bomb in Kenya, a nation where three quarters of the population are younger than 30.
Due to poverty and hopelessness, thousands of young Kenyans have been recruited by Somalia’s armed group al-Shabab in the last decade. Most vulnerable are women, as they face the highest unemployment rates.
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If you look at our communities there's a lot of hopelessness. To me, one of the biggest influences to be recruited is hopelessness.
Female recruits are especially appealing for al-Shabab because they’re less likely to draw suspicion.
“They [women] are now being used to gather intelligence, to collect information, they’re being used as spies,” says Robert “Rowbow” Ochola, a radio DJ and activist who works to rehabilitate former fighters.
He believes that the lack of opportunities and hopelessness is one of the main reasons why young Kenyans decide to join al-Shabab.
“If I had a job like I do now and was able to live and put food on the table, [to] meet my basic needs, I wouldn’t have considered doing what I did [joining al-Shabab],” says Fatuma, a former al-Shabab fighter who now works as a hairdresser, a motorcycle taxi driver and a community social worker.
Fatuma was one of the first Kenyan fighters to join al-Shabab when the group was first formed in 2006.
“I was only 17 when I met him [my husband]. I knew he wanted to marry me and [he said] that he would take me back to school … After I found out he was an al-Shabab fighter, I realised my life had been ruined. I knew he’d lied to me … but I had nowhere to go, so I decided to stay with him,” says Fatuma. “I stayed for three years. At least there I would eat and they would provide for me.”
After her husband had disappeared fighting in Somalia, Fatuma managed to escape and returned home to Kenya.
Returnees from Somalia not only face retaliation from al-Shabab; the hard security approach adopted by the Kenyan government has alienated former fighters who’ve accused the Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU) of harassment and extrajudicial killings.
While in recent years, more women have played an active role in spreading al-Shabab’s ideology in Kenya, they have also been at the forefront of the Prevention and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) initiatives.
“When someone comes back they should also get a second chance and be rehabilitated,” says Hidaya Said, a P/CVE activist. “Because since the police started killing them, abducting them and wiping them out, this problem has gotten even worse.”
Hidaya’s son was a suicide bomber involved in the Halane base camp attack in 2014 in Somalia, and as a result, “everyone saw me as a bad person and not a normal human being”.
“All of a sudden it turned out that it was happening in this home and that home and another home and there were many of us now. That’s when I realised it’s a tragedy that affects everyone. So I began getting the mothers together and we started meeting and talking and sharing.”
Since September 2017, al-Shabab has ordered communities to provide hundreds of children as young as eight to fight for them, or risk retaliation. In recent months, hundreds of unaccompanied children have fled their homes to escape forced recruitment, according to Human Rights Watch.
While Kenya’s government is taking the threat of radicalisation seriously, more needs to be done at the grassroots level to rehabilitate former fighters and prevent future ones, explains Hidaya.
“All this money the government donates to NGOs to deal with radicalisation and extreme violence, they should give it to us women working here at the grassroots level because we really know this issue and where it stems from. And we also know how to end it. Not with lots of money spent in big hotels. It’s down here where it’s a burning issue.”