Western Kenya embraces Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE)

Violent extremism is a threat Kenya has been addressing for a number of years. A noted change in trends is on recruitment as it now is reported to happen in areas outside the initial hotspots for radicalization leading to violent extremism such as Nairobi, Northern Kenya and coastal regions.

The terror attack on 14 Riverside Drive complex confirmed this premise with terror suspects reported to have come from Isiolo, Kiambu and Nyeri counties. These counties have never had an attack and for the most part had no reports of radicalization leading to violent extremism (VE).

A young woman-Violet Kemunto, who was born in Kisii, studied in Masinde Muliro University in Kakamega was allegedly linked according to media reports, with one of the masterminds of the Riverside attacks. Providing precedence not only to the spill over effects of the extremist activities in western region but also to the active involvement of women as supporters and mobilizers in extremist violent organizations (VEO) despite the perception that extremists’ groups are generally male.

With such emerging trends, it is therefore important to expand PVE efforts beyond the “hotspots” counties.

Violent Extremism and Western Kenya

Over the years, recruitment trends cite western Kenya rapidly becoming recruitment zones with Institute for security study (ISS) research documenting cases of individuals in the regions involved in major attacks. Examples include earlier mentioned Violet Kemunto, Titus Nyabiswa allegedly converted to Islam in western Kenya before involvement with a wanted person believed to have been involved in a bombing incident and Elgiva Bwire Oliacha alias Mohamed Seif from Busia county sentenced to life imprisonment for carrying out grievous terror attacks. Research also shows that the suspects are aged between 24 and 32 affirming the vulnerability of the youth plunging to radicalization and violent activities.

Poverty, unemployment, inequalities, poor relationships between community members, local administration and police officers are some of the prominent challenges in the western region.

The onset of COVID — 19 pandemic felt globally has further aggravated the risk factors to VE with a disproportionate impact on informal settlements within the region. The impact of the pandemic has vastly disrupted livelihoods in these areas particularly lives of the youth, intensifying their vulnerability to radicalization.

During BRACE dialogue forums, youth raised the feeling of disconnect and frustration as more and more tap into social media and other online tools for credible sources of information and education. With schools going digital very abruptly, inadequate skills have been provided to educators and parents alike to handle grievances or issues arising over the virtual space. For some, the limited attention accorded to youth by parents particularly teenagers have left them vulnerable to new unverified sources of information. This is further exacerbated due to the gap in digital knowledge between parents and youth in the informal settlements.

Building Resilience of communities

Cognizant of the emerging recruitments trends in the western region, Women in International Security (WIIS) Horn of Africa (HoA) with the support from the United States Embassy in Kenya implemented a project “Building Resilience of Active Communities of Empowered women” (BRACE) in western counties of Kisumu, Busia and Kakamega. With emerging cases of women in violent extremism, WIIS-HoA recognizes women’s diverse roles as promoters and preventers therefore, aimed at empowering them at a community level as a key strategy for PVE.

For a long time, women have been relegated to a subordinate status in many societies as a result of broader structural systems that perpetuate a culture of inequality. Unequal power relations, lack of control and access to resources posing serious challenges particularly in the context of violence and conflict environments. It forms drivers for coercion into or motivation to join extremist organizations that further lead to dire consequences such as gender-based violence (GBV), forced labor, suicide bombers and other imposed discriminatory restrictions.

BRACE project acknowledges the plight of women and their unique role as powerful, countervailing and positive force against VE. Approaches used in the engagements involved community dialogues with women and men, young girls and boys, local administration and law enforcement personnel. Participant’s recognition of poverty, lack of knowledge and high cases of GBV served as an entry point for discussion around drivers of radicalization leading to violent extremism. Youth empowerment platforms, integrating art and exhibition acted as an avenue of celebrating youth and diversifying their talents.

Engagements through dialogues proved very successful. Through the BRACE project, safe spaces where women and girls could openly share their experiences and perceptions using dialogue were created. To allow for participation by every member, a safe box was also placed at one of the partners offices -Woman Concern, for those who felt more comfortable to share privately to reach out.

“In the past women did not have a voice, they could not talk before men or raise a concern on any issues that affected them. Thanks to BRACE that we have a platform that we can speak with zeal and confidence in addressing issues that affect our community” — Maureen Ayodi, Baridi Kwa Baridi Organization in Busia.

The project integrated a comprehensive and cooperative approach that fostered collaboration between communities harnessing community engagements that reached more grass root community members and addressed an array of challenges. The BRACE project was implemented in partnership with Community Based Organizations (CBOs) especially women led organizations in the informal settlements to increase their knowledge base on PVE. The target counties have a county action plan (CAPs) that compliments the National Strategy on Countering Violent Extremism (NSCVE).

A close working relationship of CBOs and the county government was initiated that led to committees that would spearhead the sustainability of the project such as Malaba PVE committee chaired by the county government official in Kakamega.

For stakeholders such as the Boda Boda associations, they were able to share their grievances and connect with county officials. This was the first time for most to have a one-on-one interaction with a county commissioner. It was a welcomed experience which kickstarted breaking of barriers to allow for a better relationship to be built between the two stakeholders in Busia county.

Overall, the BRACE project directly contributed to increasing community understanding especially women to the issue of radicalization and VE, building confidence to participate in prevention initiatives.

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