When it comes to violent extremism, women are not just victims — they play diverse roles. In some cases, they sign up with extremist groups as recruiters, volunteers and fighters. In others, they seek to protect their people from terrorists as police officers and soldiers and organize communities to fight back. They are not, as one writer put ‘an exotic novelty’ in the fight against terrorism, but a central part of it.
As the involvement of women increases and diversifies, it is vital to understand their role in both propagating and countering violent extremism in order to effectively address it. Because there is so little information available, responses in this area often fall short of meeting the diverse needs of women.
To address this gap, the U.S. Government and the U.S. Institute of Peace are convening an event Tuesday that seeks to inform policy responses and interventions to ensure an inclusive approach. It will contribute directly to the discussion on countering violent extremism during the United Nations General Assembly in September.
As part of this effort in thought leadership, USAID is funding research on the nexus between gender and efforts to counter extremism. One thing is clear, women are not monolithic actors in violent extremism. Here are three myths about women and countering violent extremism.
Myth #1: Women are always victims of violent extremism, men are always perpetrators
Truth: As the introduction states, women play critical roles in limiting the spread of terrorism by challenging and delegitimizing violent extremist narratives. They are not victims but instead powerful agents of change and even play a crucial role in detecting early signs of radicalization and intervening before individuals become violent. The traditional roles ascribed to women in many societies, such as wife, mother and nurturer, can empower them to shape their home, school and social environments to make extremism and violence a less desirable option. We have witnessed this firsthand while working in Pakistan, where women’s groups such as Pamian unite across ethnic and geographic divides to take a stand against terrorism. The group works village by village, meeting mothers and their children to discuss the potential danger of radical group recruitment and looking to create job opportunities for young at-risk men.
Myth #2: Anti-recruitment should focus on young disenfranchised men, who are most at risk
Truth: Up to now, the international community has focused on young men and boys in our struggle to identify what is driving recruits to violent extremist organizations. We also have relied on traditional development programs that are gender blind. Traditional assistance in governance, education or economic empowerment have served a mostly male beneficiary base – for the purpose of overcoming diagnosed inequalities for an entire society. In some cases we have missed half the picture. Groups such as Sisters Against Violent Extremism are changing this trend. In Tajikistan, they’ve created ‘mother’s schools’ to work with local women leaders to ensure mothers can identify at-risk youth. Following their lead, we need to better understand gendered motivations to participate in violent extremist groups and develop interventions to counter this trend.
Myth #3: The international community lacks the tools necessary to engage women in countering violent extremism
Truth: U.N. Security Council resolution 1325 laid the groundwork for involving women in all areas of peace and security. This includes engaging women who work within the security sector, where they can improve overall effectiveness of police and judicial systems to respond to diverse (often gendered) needs of those who have been radicalized. Additionally, a more recent resolution addresses foreign terrorist fighters with explicit direction to member states to address gender-related conditions that are conducive to the spread of extremism. The United States National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security is the U.S. Government’s road map to advancing the empowerment and protection of women and girls in crisis and conflict situations, including the full spectrum of its prevention, response, recovery, and transition efforts. Now, we must follow that roadmap to an inclusive response countering violent extremism in countries around the world.
As USAID continues to use development to address unstable environs with shifting and diverse dynamics, engaging women in all areas of countering extremism is a vital component to ensuring our success.