Gender considerations in efforts to prevent the spread of radicalisation and violent extremism
In the fight against violent extremism, women are still operating informally, in the margin of official decision-making. It is time for a more inclusive approach that promotes women’s participation in these efforts.
The international community has been quick to respond to the rise of terrorism and violent extremist groups with military power. It is increasingly evident, however, that military strategies alone cannot address the drivers of violent extremism and the spread of radical ideologies that are conducive to terrorism, nor can they build communities that are resilient to threats of radicalisation.
An inclusive approach to tackling this evolving security threat requires investments in promoting women’s participation and harnessing gender-responsive approaches to the prevention of violent extremism. The need for a gender lens is premised on an understanding of violent extremism as a gendered phenomenon. Consequently, including women in the design and execution of preventive strategies will make such efforts more effective.
Why the need for a gender perspective
The use and manipulation of gender stereotypes often underpins the recruitment strategies of violent extremists to recruit both women and men. For example, male Boko Haram and Al Shabaab fighters have reportedly disguised themselves as women to evade arrest and to effectively carry out suicide bomber targeted assassinations. In July 2015, in Cameroon, girls were used for the first time, detonating two separate bombs, one in a market and the other in a civilian neighbourhood. Since then the Boko Haram terrorist network in Northern Nigeria has repeatedly used women and girls as suicide bombers to cause wide-scale devastation in Northern Nigeria, Northern Cameroon and Niger. They have also capitalised on women’s ability to evade security checks and attract less suspicion in using them as suicide bombers. Women are furthermore being targeted for surveillance because of their activities, activities of their sons or husbands.
At another level, women’s rights activists can be negatively impacted by efforts aimed at countering and preventing violent extremism, where such efforts are characterised by clampdowns and restrictions which impede both economic and political engagement of women and civil society activists. Marginalising women from discussions on prevention policies and strategies related to violent extremism policies constitutes a missed opportunity for ensuring that the necessary red flags are raised on how these policies are affecting their rights.
In spite of the fact that women are specifically targeted by violent extremist groups, can serve as an entry point to preventive efforts, and that they can also be a source of radicalisation, they remain marginal to decision making processes where counter terrorism frameworks and policies are developed and implemented. Factors including cultural norms and traditions, their underrepresentation in security sector institutions, and limited access to funding by women’s organisations, all serve to impede women’s leadership role in the prevention of violent extremism.
The role of UN Women
The United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women) is working with partners to highlight gender considerations in efforts to prevent violent extremism and to expand programming in this area. In the West and Central Africa region for example, UN Women’s efforts include the recent commissioning of research projects to better understand the drivers of recruitment, particularly of women, who join extremist groups, as targeting the Sahel region; strengthening the capacity of women’s civil society groups to engage in efforts to prevent violent extremism, including in Northern Nigeria; and providing comprehensive and integrated services to women and girls who are impacted by the humanitarian crises resulting from the actions of violent extremist groups, such as in Cameroon and Niger.
Still greater investments are required to support interventions that engage women in preventive efforts and that address the protection priorities for women affected by violent extremism. Enhancing women’s leadership in the fight against radicalisation and violent extremism requires both a strengthening of existing networks and the building of new ones. Investing in gender sensitive reform of security sector institutions and mobilising female security personnel to engage in their communities to gather intelligence on possible future fighters are important strategies in this regard. Providing support to women’s regional and national platforms working to promote peace and security is also essential. In the Sahel region, this includes strengthening nascent networks like the Sahel Women’s Platform. Such support must also extend to women’s groups at community levels, and underline training support to build their capacity to monitor and identify early warning signs of violent extremism. New alliances, including with female imams who are preaching tolerance and offering a progressive interpretation of Islam, must likewise be stressed. Additionally, investing in economic empowerment of women in communities that are vulnerable to radicalisation is an important strategy to advance prevention and to support community cohesion.
Funding more inclusive and sustainable approaches Inclusive and sustainable approaches to preventing violent extremism require that we engage civil society organisations and women’s groups as partners and stakeholders. This effort also requires that preventative strategies and actions do not serve to undermine or weaken women’s organisations working at community levels, who could be allies in efforts to halt the spread of radicalisation.
The international community must match positive political declarations with funding. The 2015 Secretary-General’s report on Women, Peace and Security called for a commitment of at least 15% of all funds dedicated to countering violent extremism to projects which address gender and women’s empowerment priorities. We must translate this commitment into action in the period ahead.
About the author
Comfort Lamptey is the UN Women Regional Policy Adviser for West and Central Africa.