To hear Senior Superintendent Police Commander Ruth Kithuka speak passionately about her recruitment goals for the Kenyan All-Female Special Weapons and Tactics (AFSWAT) Team, you would never guess that her first job was as a shopkeeper, or that her decision to apply to Kenya’s Administration Police was spur-of-the moment, or that she faced pressure from her family to return to a safer, less controversial profession. But her passion to protect her country and her determination to break through barriers have resulted in a lauded 20-year career in law enforcement. Bolstered by growing support from her family, her community, and her supervisors, Senior Superintendent Kithuka has been on the forefront of efforts to increase opportunities for women to help secure Nairobi’s streets. Now, she commands Nairobi’s AFSWAT and is leading a recruitment drive to replicate it in other cities across Kenya.
Achievements like these, while remarkable, are not a singular occurrence, as more and more women enter professions once considered the sole domain of men. Yet women are still underrepresented in police forces, particularly in disciplines such as SWAT, as well as in leadership positions. Unlike Senior Superintendent Kithuka – who credits U.S. Department of State-funded police training on skills such as Close Quarter Battles, VIP Protection, and Operational Intelligence with helping prepare her for the unique leadership challenges she faced in assembling the AFSWAT – policewomen are often relegated to desk jobs and overlooked for training opportunities and challenging assignments that would help advance their careers.
To help more women like Senior Superintendent Kithuka break through these barriers, the Department of State’s Bureau of Counterterrorism (CT) and the Department of Justice’s International Criminal Investigative Training Assistance Program (ICITAP) have partnered to support policewomen as they take on challenging roles in counterterrorism law enforcement efforts, including senior leadership positions.
The program, Engaging Multinational Policewomen on Equality and Rights (EMPoWER), provides women with focused attention through advanced professional training, mentorship and networking, and encouraging organizational change that recognizes the benefit of gender diversity in counterterrorism efforts.
Launched in 2020 amid the COVID pandemic, the EMPoWER team began by conducting virtual focus groups with policewomen in Albania, Bangladesh, Indonesia, and Kosovo. Focus groups enable EMPoWER to tailor its activities to the specific needs of each country. For example, policewomen in Kosovo requested more training on counterterrorism interviewing techniques, while officers in Bangladesh sought increased participation in operational counterterrorism roles.
Such opportunities don’t come easy; change agents — people of influence who can effect change — are important to EMPoWER’s cause. One of these change agents is the Deputy Inspector General (DIG) of the Kenyan Administration Police, Noor Yarow Gabow. A career police officer with more than 34 years of law enforcement experience, DIG Gabow has been instrumental in creating the AFSWAT and has been a tireless advocate for increased resources and training for Kenyan policewomen. The AFSWAT program was originally funded solely by Kenya, but now receives training assistance from the United States and other international partners.
DIG Gabow and Senior Superintendent Kithuka traveled to the United States in October 2021 as part of a police leadership advisory study tour, supported by CT and hosted by ICITAP as part of the EMPoWER program. The tour was aimed at fostering relationships with U.S. law enforcement agencies, both to provide networking opportunities and to share trainings and tactics for mutual benefit. In Washington, the Kenyan delegates met with the State Department’s Bureau of Counterterrorism and the Bureau of Diplomatic Security’s Office of Antiterrorism Assistance, as well as the Federal Bureau of Investigation. They also met with representatives from the Women in Federal Law Enforcement executive team, the National Technical Officers Association, the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement Executives, the Baltimore County Police Department, the North Carolina Justice Academy, and Fort Bragg’s Special Reaction Team.
An ICITAP EMPoWER advisor, Lynn Holland, a former career police officer and longtime advisor on international women-in-law-enforcement issues, accompanied the Kenyan delegation back to their home country, and then traveled onward to Somalia. In both countries she established mentorship relationships with policewomen, identifying ways to foster their professional development and to promote greater collaboration with African and U.S. law enforcement agencies. Ms. Holland will continue to advise Kenyan and Somali police leadership on how to further expand opportunities for women to serve in counterterrorism policing, from recruitment and selection to training and assignment. Future efforts also aim to provide networking opportunities by sponsoring memberships to law enforcement organizations as well as providing travel assistance to conference and association meetings. Online webinars, used as a training method due to COVID-related restrictions, are also being tailored to provide requested training on topics unique to African culture and regional threats.
Through EMPoWER, the Counterterrorism Bureau and ICITAP will continue to provide specialized support to policewomen in partner nations grappling with terrorism so that they can fully participate in efforts to protect and secure their communities from threats.
About the Author: Michelle Ballard is a contractor with the Bureau of Counterterrorism’s Programs Office.