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Women unit out to win hearts and minds

By Emmanuel Too | October 12th 2021

Female Empowerment Team, a unit of the Kenya Defence Forces in Somalia, interacts with women and children in Dhoble. [Courtesy]

Green headscarves, camouflage combat gear, varnished fingernails wrapped around assault rifles that hang off their shoulders.

They walk stealthily deep in the rugged thickets of Dhoble, Somalia, and its environs.

They are among those in the frontline in Kenya’s peacekeeping and enforcement mission in the Horn of Africa country. The special all-women unit of the Kenya Defence Forces (KDF) is attached to the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), and plays a critical role.

Better known as the Female Engagement Team (FET), they work with Somali women, encouraging them to embrace social activities aimed at empowering them. The more than 30 officers in the unit are under the command of Captain Gertrude Abiyo. 

“Women and children become vulnerable during the times of war. Our bosses, therefore, thought it was necessary to focus on this special group of people,” says Captain Abiyo.

Among other initiatives, the team has helped women and girls get assistance on sexual and gender-based violence, improved access to sanitary towels, and helped distribute food and business-enhancing products like milk automated machines.

“We want to win the hearts and minds of the people,” says Abiyo.

However, the initiative has not been without its bottlenecks and hurdles. One is the suspicion KDF soldiers evoke from residents. Another is language.

“It is not easy to engage the women due to social and cultural barriers that are compounded by the unstable situation in the country, but we are determined to overcome all of them,” says Abiyo.

And as the platoon keeps up with the mission to win over the women, another soldier is on the pulpit working to ensure the spiritual war is won. Lieutenant Colonel Jane Wairimu has been helping her colleagues navigate the spiritual warfare soldiers encounter almost on a daily basis.

On the table in her office are a Bible, a few other books and writing material. The well-lit room has several musical instruments, such as guitars and pianos, giving the room the aura of a church.

 “Just like the hospital that cures external injuries, we are here to heal hidden spiritual wounds among our soldiers,” says Lt Col Wairimu.

She has been in this war for years now, gathering both means and tactics to help her troops stay steadfast in their faith.

Many soldiers, she says, face mental health issues that are mostly caused by the nature of their work. They have fallen into the pit of depression and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“We normally start with a pre-deployment period, where the chaplain and counsellors tell the officers what could transpire before they are deployed for service,” she says. 

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