Women can play a range of very diverse roles in relation to violent extremism (VE), and can also make important contributions to efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE). Kenya, one of the countries in which Al-Shabaab is active, illustrates this diversity: women are involved in the group as wives/victims, in supporting roles such as intelligence-gathering and recruitment, and as perpetrators of violence. However, this diversity is not reflected in policy and programming on CVE in Kenya, which is largely gender-blind or based on narrow gender stereotypes. It also takes a heavy-handed securitised approach to CVE, and is focused only on Islamic extremism (as opposed to other forms, e.g. political violence). Both these factors have undermined effectiveness, as seen in ongoing Al-Shabaab attacks. Nonetheless, driven to a large extent by donors, many civil society organizations (CSOs) have shifted focus to CVE, with negative effects (among others) on wider development projects, and specifically on women-led/women’s rights CSOs. CVE programming needs to: be based on gendered analysis of violent extremism; mainstream gender into all activities; and ensure participation of women/women’s organizations.
This evidence synthesis drew on a mixture of academic and grey literature. While literature on Kenyan women and Al-Shabaab was quite extensive (albeit with gaps, e.g. on returnees), nothing was found on women and Ansar al-Sunnah/violent extremist groups operating in northeastern Mozambique and the Mozambique-Tanzania cross-border region.
This report should be read in conjunction with two earlier reviews of gender and CVE (Idris & Abdelaziz, 2017; Idris, 2019). This report builds on those - focusing on literature on gender and CVE published since then, and on recent guidance on CVE programming – rather than reproducing their findings.
This report covers three main themes: the role of women in violent extremism and in CVE (drawing on global evidence); Kenyan women’s involvement in Al-Shabaab and approaches to CVE and gender in that country; and recommendations/guidance for gender and CVE programming. Key findings for each are as follows:
Role of women in violent extremism and CVE
- Women and girls can play diverse roles in relation to violent extremism: as a victim, perpetrators, and supporting roles (-- including radicalization and recruitment to the group, mobilising funds
and carrying out financial transactions, transporting weapons/goods, medical treatment,
domestic chores, producing children (future generations) for the group)
- There is gender differentiation in factors driving support for violent extremism -- drivers for
men (e.g. anger at socio-political conditions, fanatical commitment to religious/ideological
beliefs) also apply to women, but additional factors such as a reaction against gender-based
inequality, and search for sisterhood and camaraderie, are women-specific.
- It is important to take a gendered approach to CVE -- gender stereotypes portray women
solely as victims of violent extremist groups, or as incapable of violent acts, or as being manipulated by men to carry out such acts. Such stereotypes deny women agency, and -- critically -- lead to significant shortcomings in CVE policies and programming, which are exploited by violent extremist groups
- Women can play many roles in CVE. Women (as mothers, sisters, etc.) can help counter
violent extremism within their family circle and neighbourhood/community, especially when
they speak as victims/survivors of extremism
Women and violent extremism-CVE in Kenya
- Kenya is a target country for Al-Shabaab. Between 2011 and 2019 there were 265 Al-Shabaab led attacks in the country; an estimated 10% of the group's militants are thought to be Kenyan nationals.
- Al-Shabaab appears to actively (and forcibly) recruit women in Kenya -- methods include social media, outreach through mosques, religious indoctrination in schools, marriage, employment incentives, and abduction
- Women play diverse roles in Al-Shabaab -- there is limited evidence of women carrying out
acts of violence for the group; there have been a few incidents of female suicide bombers but Al-Shabaab uses these far less than Boko Haram
- Women returnees from Al-Shabaab face many challenges -- women who have been with the
group (either voluntarily or involuntarily) who leave (because of harsh living conditions, disillusionment, to escape abuse, etc.)
- Women are largely missing from Kenya's CVE efforts -- despite the diversity of roles of women in Al-Shabaab, gender stereotypes persist: women are typically viewed as victims, or as mothers, wives, etc. who can steer their men away from extremism. As a result, they have been left out of the CVE agenda in Kenya.
- Kenya has taken a heavy-handed securitised approach to CVE, focused on Islamic extremism -- despite arguments from CSOs that political, economic, and social marginalization drive VE (which therefore needs to be addressed through development) and that citizens are more concerned about other forms of extremist violence (e.g. political, criminal) than Al-Shabaab, the government insists the cause is Islamist ideology and deploys the security forces to combat the group.
- Donor pressure is shaping Kenya's CVE approach -- (Western) donors are concerned about extremism in the region and therefore fund CVE efforts. The CVE agenda has become 'an
- Women-led and women's rights CSOs are particularly suffering -- such CSOs are being
squeezed between the heavy-handedness of the security forces, and the funding pressure
(prioritising CVE over other issues) by donors.
Recommendations/guidance for gender and CVE programming
Previous recommendations on gender and CVE programming highlight three aspects: the need
to carry out gendered analysis of violent extremism, to understand drivers and roles of women in
relation to VE; the need to mainstream gender into all CVE activities; and the need to ensure
participation of women and women's organizations. In 2019 the Global Counterterrorism Forum
issued an update on its 2015 good practices on women and CVE, with the following
- Mainstream gender in CVE, including promoting policy coherence with women, peace and
security (WPS) frameworks.
- Build a stronger evidence base on gender and violent extremism, including gendered
aspects of men's, women's, boys' and girls' radicalization to violent extremism and terrorism.
- Ensure that CVE policies and programmes recognize and involve women and girls as critical
- Risk assessment tools for violent extremism including combatants and returning combatants
should routinely consider gender norms and avoid stereotyping women as victims.
- Ensure that CVE, including reintegration policies, is based on gender-sensitive analysis of
the conditions conducive to women's and girls' involvement in violent extremism.
- Develop a gender-sensitive approach to the handling of former combatants (and their
- Design and support gender-responsive reintegration and rehabilitation processes and
With regard to areas for further research, the complete dearth of information on women and violent extremism in Mozambique and the Mozambique-Tanzania cross-border region clearly points to the need for research on these. More research is also needed to fill the 'gaps' in the evidence base on women and violent extremism in Kenya, notably the respective situations of female non-combatant, combatant, and former combatant returnees.