Countering violent extremism depends on women, say experts at DC Symposium

By Jillian Slutzker

April 19, 2016

Women can and should play a larger role in identifying and reducing the root causes that drive individuals to radicalization and possible violent extremism, according to experts at the CVE Symposium in Washington, D.C.

“Exclusion breeds conflict and the processes that are used to resolve those conflicts must be inclusive of a broad range of stakeholders in order to be effect and sustainable,” said Michelle Barsa, Deputy Director of Policy and Conflict Programs at the Institute for Inclusive Security, speaking April 6 at the symposium, which was co-hosted by Creative Associates International and the International Peace and Security Institute.

Violent extremist groups have to an extent incorporated women into their ranks —as fighters, recruiters, spouses, fundraisers and more. Life for women in violent groups typically can be horrible, and they are often targets of gender-based violence. Nonetheless, these groups are often far better at understanding how to exploit and appeal to gender than most international actors and national governments working to counter these threats, said Barsa.

They may play up liberation narratives, offering women a role in the cause—something women may not be getting in their regular social environments.

To be effective, CVE responses need to be adaptive and more inclusive, taking into account these dynamics.

“We have this cultural problem in the West where we only see women as victims…in so doing we really negate the viable and real reasons that women support violent extremist groups,” said Barsa, noting that promoting gender equity and improving governance in communities vulnerable to recruitment could help reduce appeal of these groups among some women.

Meaningful women’s inclusion in CVE is mission critical and goes far beyond just checking a box of having women in the room, panelists said

“If you do not include women in this particular process it will not be successful…” said Allison Salyer, Senior Gender Advisor at the U.S. Agency for International Development.  “We shouldn’t have to keep making that case, but we do.”

Paul Turner, Senior Conflict Advisor at Creative, says that the issue of including women in CVE efforts must be an ongoing priority for a coalition of actors working in this sphere.

“Multilateral and bilateral agencies, governments, military, nongovernmental organizations and the private sector must persistently engage the issue as we continue to work in conservative societies, suppressive cultures and conflict environments,” he says.

Women make security forces more effective

A successful CVE strategy must incorporate a contextual and multifaceted understanding of women’s many roles beyond victims, said panelists.

While women are found in a range of supporting and active roles in violent extremists groups, they are equally powerful players working to counter these groups—as mediators, supporters of early warning systems, educators and as members of security forces

In some of the hottest spots for violent extremist recruitment, citizens often share a common grievance of abuse by national security forces, said Barsa.

However, when women are integrated into state security forces, surveys show that community perceptions about those forces’ trustworthiness begin to improve. Female security forces have proven to be more likely to resolve disputes nonviolently as compared to their male counterparts, said Barsa.

Women also improve search and seizure operations; for example, finding hidden weapons caches in women’s quarters that are typically closed to male forces.

“We need to remember women as security providers, not just the recipients of security,” said Barsa.

Beyond women, focus on family & community

While effective CVE mandates women’s meaningful participation, like any individual, a woman is part of a larger family and community system.

Rather than working with women in isolation, CVE programming should take into account women’s social systems and relationships, said panelists.

“I want us to stop thinking about women….let’s focus on family, community and the experience that people have,” said Ritu Sharma, Senior Visiting Fellow in the Youth, Security and Prosperity Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As a force either supporting or countering violent extremism, a woman will have influence within her own family and often her community.

Sharma suggests looking at cases of resilience among women, youth and communities to study what is working among the vast majority who resist and prevent violent extremism, in order to better understand the factors at play in recruitment.

This holistic view of systems and resilience can help governments and CVE actors better support women and youth working on the ground to counter recruitment among their families and peers.

“My challenge to us as a CVE community is to take a much more holistic viewpoint,” Sharma said.

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