Submitted by Fernando Aguiar on Thu, 07/27/2017 - 14:00

The 2015 UN Security Council Resolution 2242 linked the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda to P/CVE, highlighting the important role of women on this front and urging the international community to integrate and mainstream a gender analysis on the drivers of radicalization for women. In practice this has led to the recognition, although very limited, of the potential role of locally rooted women’s organizations active in P/CVE efforts, strengthening their perspectives, experience and pioneering work.

As seen throughout this series, extremist groups invest time and efforts, use personalized strategies and engage their targets on various levels, preying deeply on faith, emotions and vulnerability. Altogether, extremist groups are spreading rigid interpretation of culture, power and societal roles to contribute to the expansion of intolerant and, in most cases, violent environment. However, over the past years, a sequence of major capacity building projects led by women were undertaken to address the threat created by insurgencies and criminal networks, not only at ideological level, but also practically.

The focus of this concluding chapter will therefore be placed on these positive bottom-up approaches led by inspiring women on different levels and from a multitude of backgrounds and stories – victims, perpetrators, policy-officers, former combatants, advocates, human rights defenders, to name a few. They have been at the forefront of creating innovative and creative initiatives across different contexts affected by violent extremism, bringing their perspective on the issue and voicing their concerns in a much restricted sphere. Growing recognition of this need was also mirrored in the ‘whole of society’s approaches to P/CVE’, which was put forward in 2015 at the UN Secretary-General’s plan of action on preventing violent extremism (PVE) [1] and an increasing number of national and regional P/CVE strategies.

Actions as a Reaction: Women at the Forefront

Confronted by the many challenges posed by radicalization, women’s organization have long identified and pioneered programs and capacity building activities as a key priority for preventing extremist violence and promoting resilience, gender equality and pluralism [2]. In contexts ranging from Syria to Nigeria, these organizations have developed innovative approaches, programs and pedagogy with the aim to identify early signs of radicalization and offer a positive alternative narrative, knowledge and opportunities, with one common goal: ‘inoculate’ against the lure of extremist rhetoric [3]. Always, these initiatives are productive as they inform our collective understanding of violet extremism and radicalization, whilst also serving as mechanisms to improve responses to policy and practice at the local level.

Most importantly, gender mainstreaming is an integral part of these projects and amounts to promoting women’s participation and leadership in P/CVE strategies [4]. These include capacity building of mothers to detect early signs of radicalization, women providing counter-narratives to violent extremism, and assisting with the inclusion of those exiting ‘radicalized’ groups.

Women’s civil society groups, very often operating in unsafe environments, are more and more demonstrating the unique role they can play in building community resilience. The Kiezmütter approach (urban community mothers), for instance, is an initiative that works directly with women, specifically mothers, from different cultural backgrounds. The project assists women who play a role as ‘inclusion facilitators’ and family counsellors in their communities, furthering different approaches to non-violent education and raising awareness of the issue of radicalization [5].

Other programs working on the field of education are ‘Together with Ufuq e.V [6] and ‘Cultures Interactive e.V [7]. Both work in targeted schools located in different districts considered to be ‘hotspots’ of radicalization, providing counseling services for teachers and students. While the former organization provides civic and political education and media-based interventions, the latter uses youth-cultural activities on self-expression and self-experiences - the so-called ‘Girl Power’ workshops. Both initiatives are highlighting gender-sensitive aspects of radicalization and violent extremism.

In a youth-work context, Dissens e.V, a Berlin based organization, has given special attention to gender-sensitive educational work. The organization offers training courses and workshops that are especially designed for youth. Together, they explore new alternative definitions of masculinity and femininity as a way of challenging rigid and gendered concepts [8].

Mother Schools for Countering Radicalism is another example of a women-led project that uses a range of different activities to both raise awareness of the radicalization threat and build the capacity to address it. The model was developed based on the results of the Women without Borders’ quantitative and qualitative study ‘Can Mothers Challenge Violent Extremism? [9]’ that highlighted lessons learned and best practices from a myriad of contexts, including Northern Ireland, Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Pakistan, supplemented by anecdotal evidence from returning foreign terrorist fighters from Iraq and Syria [10].

Amongst its main goals, the project aims to bring together concerned and affected mothers by creating a formalized space to develop their knowledge of early warning signs and build effective barriers to radical rhetoric at the home front [11]. Overall, the combined and gendered approach of the Mother’s School has provided mothers with the platform in which to rise against radicalization and build a first line of responses to prevent the phenomenon.

Outside the European context, in Jordan, for example, civil society groups, especially women’s rights organizations, are bringing together local authorities, community leaders, the private sector, and family members in vulnerable communities to respond to the risk of youth radicalization. Activities mainly focus on youth and provide services addressing their needs [12]. Their programming also combines research based on positive youth development in complex and fragile settings into practice, using participatory theatre in schools and universities.

Another case in point is Pakistan, where a limited number of women’s organizations are assisting families to address the issue when children show signs of radicalization, while in Morocco the Government has trained local women religious leaders to steer people away from violent paths. [13]

In South East Asia, the EU’s Instrument contributing for Stability and Peace (IcSP) main activities in the field of CVE are up and running. This action focus on three components:

  • Promoting as better understanding of violent extremism, so that actions dealing with prevention are grounded on research-based evidence;
  • Facilitating preventive diplomacy, by influencing policy-making through support to the conception and implementation of National Action Plans on PVE in the region;
  • Strengthening capacities of civil society, young people and women to connect, communicate and advocate for peace, tolerance and mutual respect, notably through the development of alternative narratives.

Despite the range and diversity of the initiatives, there are core common characteristics evident in each. They all highlight the importance of developing critical thinking skills and social empowerment. These programs additionally put an emphasis on building confidence of women, who are very often absent and marginalized in the area of CVE. Women are encouraged to question and analyze materials taught, while being included as role-models in cross-cutting themes, such as security, radicalization and human rights.

However, most of these grass-root actions depend on external aid to conduct their larger-scale activities. On this front, the international community and donors should especially focus on capacity-building for local actors, so that they can be the peace brokers of their own communities and enhance ‘capacity of women and their civil society groups to engage in prevention and response efforts related to violent extremism.’ [14]

Conclusion

It is a norm rather than an exception that women who are involved in P/CVE activities, especially women’s local organizations, are valued for their personal engagement rather than their political agency, for playing a role as mothers instead of leaders, which confirms rather than challenge predominant and rigid gender conceptions. In this way, instead of drawing on the existing expertise of women in the sector of P/CVE, the international community still has an over-simplified view of just ‘adding women and stir’.

Most of these programmes and activities promoted by local women’s organization, which most of the time are absorbed by larger international NGOs, assign a disproportionate responsibility to women in P/CVE. These women have the double task to overcome not only their daily difficulties in fragile settings but also traverse the gendered barriers put in front of them. But these norms are being questioned and the creative and innovative programmes that are flourishing in the four corners of the world, demonstrates women’s long-neglected capacity to be leaders in the security sector. The successful outcomes of these women-led programmes have also exposed the importance of grassroots engagement in every level of any initiative on P/CVE.

Throughout this series, a number of questions and concerns were raised, seeking to understand the intractable, inter-connected questions concerning women and men’s agency and subjectivity in processes of violent extremism. Questions such as masculinities and femininities were explored as a way to uncover the many layers of a conflict and its dynamics. It has also been demonstrated that extremist groups recognize the construction of violent masculinities in their favor and use rigid gender norms to enhance the effectiveness of their actions, whether in Nigeria, Syria or Iraq. Altogether, the series advocated for a paradigm shift in the understanding of violent extremism; one that includes gender at the core of the phenomenon, while also calling for a multi-dimensional and relational understanding of gender relations.

In concluding, to break the rigid boundaries between violent extremism and gender is a long-lasting process. One that requires constant political and historical awareness, evaluations and re-evaluations, positioning and confrontation of the many power relations that are inherited consciously and subconsciously throughout time. Perhaps now more than ever.