We want to be ‘Returned’ too! Gender and Reintegration of Returnees in Kenya

By Margaret Monyani

In the last decade, Kenya has experienced numerous terrorist attacks. Initially, it was assumed that a terrorist is typically a ‘Muslim foreigner,’ which is why much of government counter-terrorism efforts focused on securing borders and adopting stringent immigration policies and measures. However, since 2003 it was apparent that even local non-Muslims as well as Muslim Kenyans were joining terrorist groups, more specifically, Al-Shabaab in the neighbouring country of Somalia. According to Kenya’s Anti-Terror Police Unit (ATPU), an estimated 500 recruits reportedly slipped back into Kenya, either as spies and agents for the terrorist organization or because of a falling out with Al-Shabaab leaders. Therefore, in 2015 the government of Kenya launched an amnesty program whereby returnees who voluntarily surrendered themselves were to be rehabilitated and reintegrated back into society. Most if not all the returnees were men, even though questions have been raised whether women and girls could have been recruited, too.

So the critical question is: what happens to the families and specifically women who are either mothers or wives of the returnees? The amnesty program is designed only for those who are directly involved with terrorist organisations. However, these women feel left out of the process. There is a need to find ways to “return” and reintegrate them as well, because the departure of their sons or husbands to join terrorist groups has also “displaced” them from their normal lives and from their community at large. A study conducted by the Malaika Foundation on the impact of violent extremism on women in Kilifi, Mombasa, Lamu and Kwale counties in Kenya revealed that many of them are discriminated against and stigmatised when members of the community realise their family members have joined terrorist organisations abroad. Some women even face rejection and banishment from their own family. Moreover, the neighbourhoods in which they reside have been securitized by the presence of government forces, making it difficult for members of affected families to run businesses or find employment. In some cases, the families have had to relocate to other areas where they can live peacefully. Even more challenging is the fact that returnees who are spies target families of returnees who chose to join the Amnesty and Rehabilitation program.

Indeed, reintegrating terrorists and extremists back into society, particularly when they have joined terrorist groups such as Al-Shabaab, is a very complex issue. The Kenyan government’s amnesty program makes the rehabilitation process unappealing to many returnees, including the affected women and families. For instance, it is expected that once the women surrender they are put on trial just like any other criminal and sentenced before they are taken into rehabilitation centres. The involvement of the security forces in the process makes it hard for young people to surrender because of the security forces’ tendency to use excessive force. It is necessary to make the amnesty program more friendly and inclusive. When an individual decides to join a terrorist organisation, it is not about that individual but, rather, an indicator of societal decay.

In conclusion, it is evident that there are little discernible efforts by the Kenyan government to include women in the reintegration program, nor has the resourcefulness Kenyan women possess in society been fully utilised to assist and support the rehabilitation of returnees. Women have a vast yet diverse power base which spans the social, economic, cultural and economic spaces, and it needs to be tapped into to make the reintegration program more successful. However, while acknowledging the resourcefulness women could bring to the reintegration process, their roles should not be stereotyped as being “victims” or “mothers” and “wives.” The available literature shows women are not always victims of terrorism but also perpetrators of violence. Women’s involvement in the reintegration programs should be about recognising their varying yet vital role while avoiding sentimentalization in the long run.

About the author:

Margaret Monyani is a doctoral candidate pursuing a Ph.D. in International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa. Her research interests are focused on migration, displacement, gender, violent extremism, and security.

Email: [email protected]