Women hold a 52 to 48 percent majority in the world’s population, but despite this policymakers are still debating the role of women and their right to have space at the table on key security issues. Countering violent extremism (CVE) is no exception.
With the approach of the 15th anniversary of U.N. Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security and the rise of violent extremist groups including Boko Haram, al-Qaida, al-Nusra Front and the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, it is critical that we strengthen our policy responses and integrate women into our efforts to counter violent extremism.
As mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and wives, women are pivotal influencers and agents of change in their communities. When we think about countering violent extremism, women hold many roles—including victims, survivors, perpetrators, recruiters, educators and advocates for change.
“Conflict is an opportunity to bring efforts together,” said Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former U.N. Under-Secretary-General and High Representative, on a panel on Women and Countering Violent Extremism at the U.S. Institute of Peace on July 21.
Women are 50 percent of the solution that will move the geo-political agenda forward, explained Chowdhury. Women offer different and valuable perspectives, and if they are excluded from the CVE agenda, we are sabotaging our own efforts for sustainable peace.
A holistic CVE approach
An effective CVE approach must be holistic, taking into account the many roles of women in reducing violence and building sustainable peace. This in part includes “good old fashioned development work” in education and youth programs, capacity building and political reform, as Eric G. Postel, Associate Administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, explained.
Some states’ legal and judicial systems, for example, do not recognize women as equals— hence the need for a framework that addresses rule of law, which in many cases is linked to religion.
The response is no longer a simple law enforcement issue, as Timothy B. Curry, Deputy Director on Counter Terrorism Policy in the Department of Homeland Security, said.
“If we try to arrest ourselves out of this, we are going to fail,” said Curry.
Women as victims, anti-radicalizers & more
Inclusivity is a must in order to successfully bridge the gaps between policy and practice in countering violent extremism. It’s important not to look at just the effect of violence on women, but to view women as essential actors in preventing violent extremism.
As victims, women are often targets of human trafficking by extremists. ISIS regularly purchases women and girls, explained panelist Zainab Hawa Bangura, U.N. Secretary General’s Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict. Typically a trafficked women or girl will go through five or six transactions from the point of purchase, to being traded among fighters and then ransomed back to her family. Because virgins hold the most appeal to these groups, surgeries are performed to repair girls’ hymens so that they can be sold multiple times.
Today, women are used to attract fighters, as tools for recruitment, retention and propaganda. Some women are mass raped, purportedly to build cohesion among male fighters, while others are perceived as the mothers of the new caliphate, able to provide the children necessary for the sustainability and success of the Islamic State.
For example, “marriage bureaus” that facilitate the trafficking of women and girls continue to exist in ISIS-controlled territory. This is, Bangura noted, a battle that is being “waged on the bodies of women and girls.”
The question is, with an estimated 20,000-40,000 foreign fighters participating in violent extremism, how do we develop a framework for accountability of crimes like these against women and girls?
While women have fallen victims to violent extremism, they are also taking on roles as agents of change in their communities, creating early warning systems and responses to radicalization. For example, SAVE’s (Sisters Against Violent Extremism) “Mothers MOVE!” (Mothers Opposing Violent Extremism) campaign provides mothers the encouragement, support and necessary tools to protect their children from the threat of violent extremism.
Through the MOVE initiative in Yemen, Indonesia, Pakistan, India, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Nigeria, the UK and Ireland, women are strategically positioned to raise consciousness about the threat of violent extremism and to empower women to spread counternarratives against extremist ideologies. They build an ideal early warning system when their sons, daughters or husbands travel down the wrong path.
In an inclusive CVE framework, there is also room for victims of extremism to move into roles as advocates for change. There is a clear demand for the development of a conflict-related sexual violence framework that empowers survivors of violent extremism as advocates for change. More specifically, this framework needs to examine perpetrators of silence regarding sexual crimes and the influence of religious leaders who preach that women who experience sexual violence are better off dead due to the shame that it brings to the family.
We must continue to expand our thinking and begin to examine the multifaceted roles of women in relation to extremists groups and CVE efforts, incorporating those women we have thus far left out. For example, there is an existing network of mothers whose daughters have been radicalized, and who would be a valuable asset to an inclusive CVE strategy. These women have indirectly created an entire intelligence framework that has thus far been overlooked.
We must also examine and develop initiatives around the role of women as influencers and power holders within families—who can encourage or prevent radicalization as well as contribute to rehabilitation. With this in mind, women’s empowerment and gender equality must be addressed because an equitable society is imperative to peace and security. If women who live amidst violent extremism have no power within the family, they will be powerless to address early signs of radicalization and violence.
Getting it right on women & CVE
There is no doubt that we need more evidence and research to determine what drives radicalization, especially because our initiatives to counter violent extremism have been playing up to extremists around the globe. We have to get it right when it comes to bringing women into the fold of countering violent extremism.
Unfortunately, ISIS is taking our playbook in inclusivity vis-à-vis gender and youth and applying it against us, explained Bangura.
According to a New York Times article “ISIS and the Lonely Young American,” ISIS spent six months and thousands of hours recruiting one young girl. The level of commitment by ISIS to target and exploit women and youth is evidence enough of their importance in countering violent extremism programming. These violent extremist groups are the ones pushing forward, while we try to figure out how to create a more inclusive approach to countering violent extremism.
For the most part, our counterterrorism community works independently from the women, peace and security agenda. We must bring these networks closer together and start collaborating on entrepreneurial solutions, thinking outside the box and formulating real-time responses in order to integrate women into the solution and successfully degrade violent extremism.
Roman Terehoff is a Training with Industry Fellow recently selected from the U.S. Army on a one year assignment at Creative. Roman will share with Creative his skills and experience as a civil affairs operator, while learning innovative industrial management practices, techniques and procedures.
Chelsea Decaminada is an intern with the Cross Functional Group at Creative. She is a graduate of Duke University, where she studied Public Policy and International Comparative Studies with a focus on Sub-Saharan Africa.