A group of women gathered recently in Kiambu, an overcrowded Kenyan town, to build their local response to a national problem: recruitment, especially of young men, by extremist groups such as al-Shabab. Kiambu’s women form one of several groups nationwide that are launching local dialogues—typically among community members and authorities—to build well-rooted efforts to counter extremist influence. These groups are part of a network called Sisters Without Borders, which has risen from Kenya’s grassroots over the past five years. On the upcoming International Women’s Day, the story of Kenya’s sisters is worth noting as a success for women building peace and confronting terrorism in their homelands.

Sisters Without Borders gathers women in Eastleigh, a section of Nairobi, to discuss ways to prevent violence and extremism. Eastleigh and an adjacent neighborhood have suffered attacks and recruitment by al-Shabab militants.
Sisters Without Borders gathers women in Eastleigh, a section of Nairobi, to discuss ways to prevent violence and extremism. Eastleigh and an adjacent neighborhood have suffered attacks and recruitment by al-Shabab militants.

Kenyan Women Confront Terror

In 2014, Kenya was grappling for ways to respond to increasing terrorist attacks. Al-Shabab gunmen recently had stunned the nation by killing 67 people at Nairobi’s Westgate shopping mall. The government reacted mainly with force, instilling fears that inhibited many communities’ cooperation with authorities. Women saw their sons, brothers or neighbors recruited to al-Shabab and allied groups. In response, groups of activist women working in Nairobi neighborhoods, and in the cities of Mombasa and Garissa—all hotspots of extremist activity—joined to create the Sisters Without Borders network.

The women, from different ethnic and political backgrounds, understand the local causes of extremism, knowledge they use to help their communities prevent radicalization and better collaborate with Kenyan authorities. USIP provided training and support to help the women build their organizations and bridge the gap between communities and government representatives.

In five years, Sisters Without Borders has had an outsized impact on those cities where it began. Garissa, an eastern city, suffered a horrific attack by al-Shabab in 2015 that killed 147 people at the local university and fueled ethnic tensions. The women’s network helped convene community leaders and officials to ease local tensions and build a consensus on ways to improve security. “Women are security officers in the home and within the community,” said Maryam Hussein, a member of Sisters Without Borders’ Garissa chapter. “They too deserve to be heard and included” in building a nation’s security, she said.

In Nairobi, the women have achieved powerful changes in Eastleigh, a commercial district, and Majengo, an adjacent, low-income neighborhood. Al-Shabab for years has recruited youth and launched attacks in those areas—and aggressive police responses fueled public anger against them and the government. Sisters Without Borders has conducted workshops for community members on the drivers of radicalization. And it has used arts programs, support groups for mothers, and even friendly soccer games between young people and police officers to help the community divert young people away from extremist ideas. As a result, women and youth now engage more freely with police, notes Sisters Without Borders’ chair, Fauziya Abdi Ali. Community members better understand the local police and legal systems, reducing the misunderstandings that can fuel grievances and ease extremist recruitment.

Now, a Nationwide Impact

In the past year, Sisters Without Borders has expanded into new regions of Kenya that have been hubs of radicalization: Isiolo, Kisumu, Nakuru and others. And the network now participates in shaping national policies.

When the Kenyan government published its first national strategy to counter violent extremism in 2016, that document failed to recognize the breadth of roles that women can play. Sisters Without Borders quickly reached out to senior government officials and women members of parliament to underscore the necessity of including women in any truly viable strategy.

“We offered ourselves as a resource for information—a way for national-level officials to hear important realities from localities,” Ali said. The sisters established their group as a trusted partner in shaping policies on both gender and security issues. Officials in recent months have said publicly that the national strategy will be revised to include the role of women as one of its pillars.

The Global Lesson of Local Women

On March 8, women’s advocacy groups and international organizations will observe International Women’s Day—an annual reminder that our world will never build peace nor advance the human condition without the full engagement of half the world’s population. This year marks the 20th anniversary of U.N. Security Council Resolution 1325, a global affirmation of that principle. Yet women in many societies still struggle for the most basic rights to physical safety, education and opportunity. And the international community still falls short of fully engaging women in building peace and security.

Twenty years after that iconic global declaration, the members of Sisters Without Borders feel they have a voice. Through their dedicated efforts, they have influenced a male-dominated security sector to acknowledge their successes and open a door to women’s participation in policymaking. Members of the network cite as one of their greatest strengths the way that women from diverse parts of Kenya came together to support each other. They build each other up and amplify each other’s successes. They pride themselves on this strong collaboration and, with additional support from USIP, are poised to expand the group regionally across East Africa. Just as the threat of terrorism traverses national borders, so does the strength and potential of women’s networks.

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