June 30, 2020 by Agnieszka Fal Dutra Santos and Mallika Iyer
While “violent extremism” escapes an agreed-upon definition, acts recognized as violent extremist by both the international community and local populations continue to pose a threat to international peace and security. Violent extremism conducive to terrorism transcends national borders as well as cultural, religious, political, and socio-economic categories, with attacks occurring from New Zealand to Sri Lanka, from Afghanistan to the United States, and from France to Mali. Nearly 16,000 people were killed in violent extremist attacks in 2018, and violent extremism has driven millions to flee their homes.
Gendered impacts of violent extremism
There is growing evidence that the impact of violent extremism conducive to terrorism, as well as tactics and strategies of violent extremist groups, are strongly gendered. Across all regions, advance of violent extremist groups has been coupled with attacks on gender equality and women’s rights. As a result, violent extremism contributes to an increased use of the bodies of women and girls as a form of currency in the political economy of war. From August 2014 onwards, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) forced around 6700 Yazidi women and girls into sexual slavery and domestic servitude across eastern Syria and western Iraq. Although a trial is in process between a Yazidi survivor of sexual slavery and a German perpetrator, thousands of women and girls continue to be held in sexual slavery and forced marriages in Mosul. Similarly, in Nigeria, accounts from the 200 girls forcibly abducted by Boko Haram in 2016 provide evidence of sexual slavery and forced marriages to insurgents. It is evident that globally, sexual violence, including sexual slavery, rape, human trafficking, and early, forced, and child marriage, continues to be a tactic of terrorism, integral to recruitment, resourcing, and radicalization strategies. Women and girls are treated as “wages of war”, being gifted as a form of in-kind compensation or payment to fighters, who are then entitled to resell of exploit them as they wish.
However, the gendered nature of violent extremism conducive to terrorism goes beyond the sexual and gender-based violence perpetrated by violent extremist groups. Evidence shows that violent extremist groups have strategically manipulated and exploited gender norms and ideas about masculinity and femininity, to build their support base, justify their actions, and attract new recruits. For example, some groups have used gendered narratives of men’s duty to “save their women” or “revenge their women” as a recruitment tactic. At the same time, violent extremist groups have also used “warped feminism”, emphasizing that they “support and hold dear [their] female force” and creating opportunities for leadership and socio-economic advancement for women.
Gender in preventing violent extremism
Thus, a gender analysis, informed by the perspectives of local women and men, as well as young people, should be at the core of any successful policy or program designed to counter or prevent violent extremism conducive to extremism. However, there have been very limited efforts to meaningfully involve local populations in programs intended to prevent violent extremism. On the other hand, state-sponsored responses to violent extremism have often failed to recognize and adequately address the plurality of roles, experiences, and needs of women and men affected. Securitized, male-dominated, exclusionary counter terrorism measures continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes, which negatively affect women and youth.
The Progress Study on Youth, Peace, and Security highlighted the harmful gendered stereotypes propagated in policy discourse, media, and social norms on violent extremism, which posit young men as radical aggressors, and young women as passive victims without agency. When women’s agency is recognized within the “preventing violent extremism” framework, their roles and contributions are often stereotyped and instrumentalized, and their rights, lives and security put at risk. For example, programs that focus on promoting women’s rights or engaging women solely as a means of preventing or countering violent extremism, run the risk of “agenda hijacking” and distract from the “wider structural realities that produce gender inequality, exclusion and violence.” Moreover, programs that propose to use women’s roles as mothers, wives and sisters to position them as “gate-keepers”, or intelligence gatherers, not only perpetuate traditional gender roles, but may also put women at risk, if not designed in a culture- and conflict-sensitive manner. As a result, the interplay between patriarchal gender norms and violent extremism remains unaddressed.
There is also a documented tendency for strategies to prevent and/or counter violent extremism conducive to terrorism to be used as political tools. This is clear, for example, in the tendency of some strategies and programs’ to over-emphasize the role of religion and ideology in fueling violent extremism, which “conveniently allows the focus to remain on the behavior and propaganda of the violent extremists, and not on socioeconomic or political conditions in a society where the government might bear some responsibility.” Feminist activists have denounced the negative impact of counter terror policies and hardline security measures which undermine efforts to build sustainable peace and promote gender equality. Counter terrorism has also been used as a justification for crackdowns on civil society and women human rights defenders.
Global policy framework on preventing and countering violent extremism
The United Nations Global Counter Terrorism Strategy adopted in 2006 and the United Nation’s Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism adopted in 2015, call for a shift from securitized, state-led counter terror policies to sustainable, inclusive strategies to prevent and counter violent extremism (PCVE) conducive to terrorism. Such approaches require in-depth gender analysis, and meaningful participation of women and youth. The Women and Peace and Security (WPS)[i] and Youth and Peace and Security (YPS)[ii] agendas provide an important policy framework for the meaningful inclusion of women and youth in conflict prevention, including PCVE. The United Nations Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 2242 on WPS emphasized the importance of women’s participation in PCVE, and urged Member States and UN entities to empower women, youth, and religious and cultural leaders to address the conditions conducive to the spread of terrorism and violent extremism. UNSCR 2250 and 2419 on YPS recognized the critical contributions of youth, including young women, in preventing violent extremism, and promoting sustainable peace more broadly.
Nevertheless, countless women, young women, and girls remain excluded from PCVE, and decision-making on peace and security more broadly. Gender-blind PCVE strategies fail to address the exclusion of women and girls from political decision-making, education and economic opportunities, which increases their vulnerability to discrimination, sexual violence, and radicalization.
Effective and gender-responsive PCVE strategies must view prevention of violent extremism as part of a broader effort to build sustainable peace. They should invest in young women’s empowerment, participation, education, and leadership. Moreover, there is a need for more rigorous monitoring of the effectiveness and impacts (both positive and negative) of PCVE, and to learn from the robust and growing body of evidence on PCVE strategies.
As the UN agencies and Member States prepare for the High-Level Conference on Counter Terrorism on“Building Institutional and Social Resilience to Terrorism”,over the coming weeks, GNWP will publish a series of articles that examine the impact of violent extremism and PCVE efforts on women and young women, and the roles that women and young women play in addressing root causes of violence and violent extremism in their communities. We will share the perspectives of members of GNWP’s Young Women Leaders for Peace (YWL) program in the Philippines, who provide an alternative to the State’s securitized Anti-Terrorism measures, by running a peace education campaign with a specific focus on PCVE, gender equality and sustainable peace. We will highlight the achievements of YWL in Indonesia, who challenge the presumption that religious ideologies are at the root of violent extremism, and instead support local businesses to address the economic roots of violence, and build communities that are more gender-equal, peaceful, and resilient to violent extremism conducive to terrorism. We will spotlight young Afghan women’s viewpoint on violent extremism and PCVE in their country. We will share reflections from young people in Mali on why a gender perspective is necessary in their country’s efforts on PCVE. In light of the global COVID-19 pandemic, we will also examine how this humanitarian emergency impacts on violent extremism and PCVE efforts, particularly in local communities.
The voices of young women amplified through this series send a clear message: violent extremism is a complex phenomenon that intersects with other forms of violence and insecurity in local communities. As such, PCVE efforts should be seen in a holistic manner, and should focus on addressing root causes of violence – including exclusion and gender inequality.
Through the series we will demonstrate that women, including young women, can successfully address the negative impact of violent extremism and its root causes, provided that they are recognized and empowered to be leaders and decision-makers in their communities. We also argue that such women-led approaches result in a more comprehensive and holistic approach to PCVE, by focusing on root causes of conflict and violence broadly, rather than singling out ideologically-motivated or extremist violence.
Ahead of the 2020 United Nations High-Level Conference of Heads of Counter Terrorism Agencies of Member States, we call on the Member States and other relevant actors to:
- Carry out rigorous gender-responsive and conflict and crisis analysis when formulating and implementing their PCVE strategies, including through investing in sex-disaggregated data and gender-responsive analysis on the drivers and impact of violent extremism conducive to terrorism, and developing gender-responsive risk assessment tools.
- Ensure full and meaningful participation of grassroots women, young women, and girls at all levels of the design, implementation and monitoring of PCVE strategies, in a way that recognizes their diverse experiences, gives them power to shape decisions and design of the PCVE strategies, includes them in robust and institutionalized mechanisms to monitor the effectiveness of PCVE measures, and does not commodify or instrumentalize their contributions.
- Refrain from securitized approaches to countering violent extremism, and invest in preventative approaches that address root causes of violent extremism, protect human rights, build community resilience, and are led by women, including young women.
- Review existing counter terrorism, PCVE and “de-radicalization” strategies and measures to ensure that they are gender-responsive and rooted in respect for human rights and gender equality.
- Recognize and adequately address the gendered nature of violent extremism and its impacts, including sexual violence, sexual slavery, early, forced, and child marriage, human trafficking, kidnapping and murder, and restricted access to education and sexual health and reproductive services.
- Harmonize National Action Plans (NAPs) on PVE with those on WPS, and meaningfully include women and young people in the development of the NAPs.
Click here for more information on GNWP’s Young Women Leaders for Peace program, and how it contributes to sustainable, locally-led and gender-responsive PCVE.
[i] Women Peace and Security agenda comprises of UN Security Council Resolutions (UNSCR) 1325 (2000), 1820 (2008), 1888 (2008), 1889 (2009), 1960 (2010), 2106 (2013), 2122 (2013), 2242 (2015), and 2467 (2019). UNSCR 2242 made an explicit link between WPS and PVE, and called “for the greater integration by Member States and the United Nations of their agendas on women, peace and security, counter-terrorism and countering-violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism.”
[ii] Youth Peace and Security agenda comprises of UNSCR 2250 and 2419. Both resolutions underscore the roles young people play in preventing violent extremism. UNSCR 2250 urges Member States to “increase inclusive representation of youth in decision-making at all levels (…) including institutions and mechanisms to counter violent extremism.”