UN calls for women’s engagement in countering violent extremism: but at what cost?

Women are already on the frontlines of violent extremism. Engaging with them is not about instrumentalizing them but about building and recognizing their agency.

Sophie Giscard d'Estaing
9 November 2015

The latest UN Security Council resolution on women and peace and security – resolution 2242 - passed on October 13, introduces a theme new to the Council’s deliberations in this area: gender and terrorism. It notes that terrorism has a specific impact on women and girls’ human rights, it expresses deep concern about the use of sexual violence as part of the strategy and ideology of some violent extremists, it calls for greater integration of gender throughout activities to counter terrorism and violent extremism and it urges Member States and the UN to address the conditions conducive to the rise of violent extremism, including by supporting the empowerment of women. For many feminist peace activists this new thematic focus of the Security Council triggers an ambivalent reaction. On the one hand, the military tactics of some extremists have fundamentally and explicitly attacked women’s security and freedoms and require concerted international responses in defense of women’s rights. On the other hand, the notion of engaging women in efforts to counter violent extremism (CVE) sounds dangerously as if women will be ‘weaponized’ in this fight, and in ways that surely can put them – and perhaps also the project of gender equality – at deadly risk. 

Where does this idea come from?  Counter-terrorism efforts have tended to perpetuate standard gender stereotypes of men as fighters and women as victims. This of course misses the nuances of insurgents’ social and political tactics, which have seen extremist groups reaching out to women in conflict-affected and fragile states, sometimes more effectively than moderates.  Extremists have been portrayed as relying primarily on violent indoctrination, recruiting women and girls to their ranks though kidnapping and sexual and other forms of torture and coercion. But as increasingly recognized, they have also developed positive strategies to appeal to women, recruiting far beyond directly affected communities using social media, offering women a range of combat-related roles (for instance logistics, procurement, recruitment) as well as invoking women’s important roles in families and communities.

While there is absolutely no question that certain religious extremists specifically and directly target women of other faiths for sexual torture and humiliation, and seek explicitly to end social and political arrangements for gender equality and women’s rights, there is not much to be gained as seeing women mainly as victims. This is because there are no “frontlines” as in past wars.  As evident from the great difficulty in locating and rescuing women and girls kidnapped by Boko Haram or ISIS, violent extremists infiltrate communities and households, or fade into lawless unmapped territories, greatly increasing the difficulties of identifying targets and the risks that civilians will be disproportionately harmed in counter-terrorism efforts.  In these contexts, new types of tactics are needed. 


Photo flickr: Africa Renewal

The same week that resolution 2242 was agreed, news reporting around the world revealed the highly gendered impact of the seizure of the city of Kunduz by the Taliban in Afghanistan, where the deliberate targeting of women activists and organizations, labeled “immoral”, by the Taliban, caused them to flee, leaving their families and projects behind, or they would face death.  Following not long after news reports of the ‘bureaucratization’ of the rape of Yazidi women by ISIS, the way the new Security Council resolution coincided with these atrocities gave a sense of a clash of civilizations behind the divergent women’s rights agendas of the international community and that of violent extremists. While extremist groups from Afghanistan to Iraq push back the progress made on women’s human rights and gender equality, the international community (at least ostensibly) deepened its commitment to build gender equality and protect women’s rights.

At this crossroads of women’s empowerment and gender equality with the struggle against violent extremism there are serious ethical questions of which at least two stand out:  first, by investing in women to prevent and countering violent extremism, are we instrumentalizing them and putting them at greater risk?  Second, how serious is this new international commitment to investing in gender equality in contexts and communities susceptible to the appeal of radical extremists?

Asking if supporting women’s empowerment in preventing and countering violent extremism is “worth” putting them at risk in effect denies the agency and achievements of women who are already at the forefront of this battle. It frames them as victims once again. The concern about ‘instrumentalizing’ women is not new; it was expressed by women’s groups right from the start of efforts to engage the Security Council in addressing gender issues in conflict, efforts that culminated in resolution 1325 in 2000.  At its core, the proposal to engage women in the CVE agenda is about participation, leadership and inclusivity, but also fundamentally about prevention and demilitarization. Inclusion means giving voice and agency to women and communities in all decision-making and through that to shift our tools, analysis, and outcomes. Women have been, and still are, at the center of community defenses against violent extremism. The challenge however is to identify means of supporting those who live with, fight and suffer directly from extremist groups to define and design programmes to prevent and counter the appeal of extremist ideologies. Women’s peace and democracy organizations and activists have to be recognized as having the knowledge of what methods work to respond to the concerns of local populations. Denying them support and recognition, out of a misplaced sense that this will intrumentalize them, will only abandon them to greater risks of a deeper and lasting backlash on women human rights.

Mossarat Qadeem at Capitol Hill, Washington DC.

Women face different risks in different environments. In the United Kingdom, mothers in some communities work together on Early Warning prevention, uniquely placed to recognize the signs of radicalization in their children. The risks faced by these UK-based women are indirect, and nothing like the direct dangers to women peace activists in northwestern Pakistan who work together on the de-radicalization and de-mobilization of their sons recruited by extremist groups. Mossarat Quadeem, for instance, knows the risks when she takes her car at night, driving through hostile mountainous territory to reach families asking for help to convince their young men and women not to join extremist groups. No one asked her to take these risks. In developing this network of mothers, she exploited the gendered role of mothers, respected members of families and communities, who are uniquely placed to influence young people’s choices when tempted by jihad. This form of ‘strategic essentialism’ translates powerfully into local understandings of women’s roles and enable women, especially older mothers, to mitigate the appeal of extremist recruitment strategies. 

The question about the risk to women is important, but there is a different risk that has to be addressed: the risk that the question is used as a let-out clause for the international community, which might excuse itself for not standing up for women’s rights on the perverse grounds that doing so might trigger backlash and further endanger women.  This is not an unfair question, given the inconsistencies and weaknesses in international efforts to support women’s leadership in conflict prevention, particularly in fragile states.

So we must ask how serious is the international community in its appeal to engage women in CVE efforts?  When external actors frame women primarily as victims, and when untold amounts of funding are spent on drone attacks and intelligence efforts, what has to change so that there is respect and support for the leadership role of women human rights and democracy activists in these contexts? Countering violent extremism strategies should take a rights-based and inclusive approach, by engaging with communities and women. In fact, CEDAW’s general recommendation 30 recommends that States “reject all forms of rollbacks in women’s rights protections in order to appease non-State actors such as terrorists, private individuals or armed groups”. The Global Counter Terrorism Forum’s recent good practice document recognizes the importance of including women in efforts to prevent violent extremism, and provides some recommendations on how to support them. The new UN Resolution 2242 makes the point that it is high time the international community researches the impacts of counter terrorism strategies on women’s rights and organizations, and ensures the participation and leadership of women and women’s organizations in developing these strategies and preventing violent extremism. These are positive steps forward towards the recognition of women’s roles in preventing violent extremism, yet we know very little about the current activities and spending of the international community on efforts to engage with women to prevent violent extremism.

Concerns about the sincerity of the focus on women in CVE are driven by a long-standing mismatch between women’s rights rhetoric in international declarations, and actions on the ground.  Resolution 2242, for instance, calls for 15% of CVE budgets to be allocated to gender-sensitive programmes, yet it is unknown how much is spent on CVE at all, let alone on gender-specific interventions.  Fifteen percent does not sound like a big deal, yet the UN has been unable to meet a commitment to spending 15% of peacebuilding funds on gender equality, a commitment set five years ago in the Secretary-General’s Seven Point Action Plan on gender-responsive peacebuilding. According to the Global Study on the implementation of the United Nations Resolution 1325, a mere 2% of OECD official development assistance in 2012-2013 addresses gender in peace and security specific aid in fragile states. The least we can say is that the international community has a very long way to go in investing in women’s empowerment.

Countering violent extremism programmes are not in fact putting women on the frontlines of prevention and countering violent extremism.  Women are already there. Recognizing their role and agency, understanding the complexity of the environment in which they operate, funding and enabling civil society organizations, traditional and religious leaders that advance gender equality and democracy, and supporting women’s ownership over these actions, will be key to the pursuit of the broader peace agenda. Dedicating 15% of CVE funds or of UN peacebuilding budgets to women’s empowerment is not enough. States must acknowledge and support women’s leadership in human rights struggles everywhere and this includes making certain that they participate directly in conflict resolution and rebuilding efforts.  It is current international practice to ignore these women. Supporting women’s leadership is not about instrumentalizing or weaponizing women.  It is simply about recognition and respect, which requires direct invitations to conflict-resolution processes, and financial support.


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