Gender, terror and Kenya’s efforts to counter violent extremism


Following the recent MoU signing between UN Women and Kenya’s National Counter Terrorism Centre (NCTC), NCTC Director Dr Rosalind Nyawira discusses the country’s efforts to counter violent extremism and why it is important to apply a gender lens.

Dr Rosalind Nyawira is the Director of Kenya's National Counter Terrorism Centre. Photo: NCTC Communications
Dr Rosalind Nyawira is the Director of Kenya's National Counter Terrorism Centre. Photo: NCTC Communications


Dr Nyawira has a background in international humanitarian law (IHL). Her research concluded that the laws of war fail to protect children in conflict scenarios. It is no wonder that in her current role, she acutely distinguishes the differing needs and approaches between boys, girls, women and men in the context of countering violent extremism:

"Different mechanisms are needed depending on gender. For boys, the presence of a male figure they look up to is important. We cannot ignore economics as a push factor, so we need to support this too. For women and girls, they need to be empowered in terms of livelihood, because most of them take care of the household. Girls are expected to seek marriage to strong male fighter figures – they call themselves the ‘lions of the caliphate’," explains Nyawira. "When a child returns, there is also a difference in responses. Mothers are often more resilient in their support of returnees and play an important role when it comes to disengaging former fighters," she adds.


From abuse to ambassadors

The national strategy to prevent/counter violent extremism in Kenya ensures that voices from gender youth and persons with disabilities (PWDs) are included in interventions and that they are tailored accordingly. Nyawira notes: 

“Women are really scarred by violent extremism however their voices are not heard. But when you invest time to speak to individuals and give them a forum, they tell their story. Mostly the men are combatants so there are different angles to focus on. Men and women experience violent extremism differently."

The different social relations that men and women have at the community level also inform how to respond to these issues. A significant part of the response is to work with communities and create sustained dialogue so that everyone is aware. Local networks formed by women have proved to be an effective and sustainable method to disseminate and advocate against violent extremism: 

"Women groups are a success, and they are doing a good job of reaching other women. I have come to learn that communities know – there is nothing people don’t know. Community policing is really happening and if there is an issue, these groups know instantly. We have been developing women to be ambassadors, so they actively go out and speak to families. Our role then becomes more of coordination. We also have mentors among the youth. Especially among men and boys. If a woman is worried, she has a child who is drifting towards to delinquency, they can send mentors them to try and counter."

Progressive for peace

As a woman leading in a traditionally male-dominated space, Dr Nyawira has often felt the need to work twice as hard to be recognised – because she is a woman. She has navigated these challenges, and always taken a problem-solving attitude to situations:

"Egos are also a big challenge. You can find yourself in a situation where you have a good opinion, but it will be challenged – not because the idea is bad, but because its coming with you [a woman]. But I learnt to adjust with time. You have to learn the language to talk to such people."

This progressive approach guides NCTC and how the organisation approaches VE as she emphasises, "you can never have enough ideas, it is important that we are progressive. The community and threats are always morphing, we cannot be static ourselves. Those at the frontier, they understand the problems they are facing but they don’t tell anyone or don’t know what to do. I want to reach them, I want them to know they are not alone in this."

UN Women has been working alongside with NCTC since 2016 conducting joint initiatives to advance the Women Peace and Security Agenda in Kenya. The MoU between NCTC and UN Women will focus on creating an enabling policy environment; strengthen institutions and capacities of relevant stakeholders on gender in PCVE; and  evidence generation on the gender dimension of PCVE.