Women as violent actors – Catheline Nyabwengi shares her emotive research in Kenya’s security sector
Catheline Nyabwengi joined BIGSAS in winter 2020, making her a relatively “new” Junior Fellow. Even though she is in the earliest stages of her dissertation, she already has an interesting story to tell. Her academic endeavour took off when she was writing her master’s thesis about the history and transformation of the Chinkororo Movement – a violent group formation in Kenya. In the course of her master’s thesis, she had a realization that brought about the idea for her doctoral project.
Where are the women?
“While analysing my data, I realized that women were rarely featured in the perpetration of violence and security in the country. So, I started making my own observations.”
She started to notice different treatment at entryways and security checkpoints, as she was rarely searched. On the other hand, most men face serious frisking. Additionally, male security personnel dominated the work force, with only a few women working in such jobs. She began to follow the Kenyan public and international discourse. She found that women were majorly represented as either victims of violence, in need of protection or coerced and manipulated into committing violent acts. While this could explain the difference in perception and the absence of women in security jobs, an important question arose for Catheline: Does this match with reality?
Women as violent actors
Going back in history, she found proof that women have been actively participating in violent acts and a lot of terror attacks in Kenya. This triggered her to draft a research proposal, through which she would gain an informed point of view that could help her distinguish the myth from real histories. Her goal is to challenge the prevailing notion of women participating in violence as being victims or coerced actors. Her purpose is to ultimately influence Kenyan interior security policies:
“If we are not treating all members of a society as equals in security aspects, we are producing gender blind counterterrorism strategies that are incomplete and unsuccessful. Because we treat women as intrinsically vulnerable, we are concealing a very important part and actor in society.”
She suggests a change in perception. Instead of putting women in the periphery of the public sphere and as passive beneficiaries of policies that they did not take part in making, which do not ultimately help them. She wants to include women in peacekeeping, conflict resolutions and integration processes. This is also, why she centres questions about women as violent actors: How are they recruited, treated and how do they fight?
Studying historic sources in archives and literature, as well as conducting in-person interviews with female members of violent groups, she has received unique insights and a platform to connect. But:
“Security is …sensitive”
Her sample groups consist of former members of terroristic groups in Kenya like Al-Shabaab, Mungiki and Gaza. This is naturally a highly sensitive topic of national interest. Catheline has received multiple threats, emotional and physical harassment and is often regarded with suspicion. Because kenyan society has established security as a male territory, she is also confronted with irritation and disbelieve, why a woman would be interested in these topics. Altough she is aware of the ethical challenges her research topic entails, she tries to free herself of any pre-emptive notions and biases:
“This allows me to ask productive questions. It is all about a normal friendly conversation… You cannot put yourself above them.”
These field trips require her to put herself in harm’s way: Even though the Kenyan government assures amnesty to members who have come forward and surrendered, most people do not trust the national security sector. This mistrust leads most former fighters to remain in hiding. On one side, they are unsure of being forgiven, if they present themselves to local security officials. On the other hand, they fear repercussion from members of their former group that might have followed them. This means that any access to a conversation with them is restricted by caution and distrust: No phones, no recorders at the meeting point – mostly without any of her friends and sometimes family knowing Catheline’s location or whereabouts.
“My husband though supportive of my career path, does not love this line of study because of the risks I have to endure. But you have to wear courage. After all, if you don’t do it, who will?”
Her research has given Catheline thick skin – emotionally and mentally. It gave her the courage to put herself out there and open her own YouTube Channel, where she discusses and shares her opinion on everyday concerns on security in Kenya. With the hopes of being involved in policy making in her country, she plans to return to Kenya at the end of her PhD. She has visions about setting up a research and publication centre concerning terror and violence in Kenya. In December 2019, Catheline won the 3rd position in United Nations Counter Terrorism Challenge where she in collaboration with Grace Atuhaire presented a policy proposal for online community policing. In May 2020, they also won the 2nd place in an essay competition from “The Policy Corner”, where Catheline together with Grace wrote “Restoring Trust and Building Bridges: Addressing Online Radicalization in Africa”. Her future sure looks bright!
For now, she is one of the newest additions to the Junior Fellow group of BIGSAS and is happy about the community, overlapping projects and different points of view she is gaining through the interaction with other fellows.
“For me BIGSAS is all about the network, the platform and the scholars from diverse backgrounds. But also, about the continuous guidance I receive, because a PhD is a process not an event. I appreciate the understanding, that we are different students, from different background, facing different challenges.”
We wish her all the best for her doctoral project!