Women in countering violent extremism

Women and CVECountering violent extremism (CVE) has become vital to national security. On Tuesday, the United States Institute of Peace explored women’s role. The panel included Zainab Hawa Bangura, Special Representative of the UN Secretary General on Sexual Violence in Conflict, Ambassador Anwarul K. Chowdhury, former Under-Secretary-General and High Representative of the United Nations, Chantal de Jonge Oudraat, President of Women in International Security, Susan Hayward, Director of Religion and Peacebuilding at USIP and Jacqueline O’Neill, Director of the Institute for Inclusive Security. Kathleen Kuehnast, Director of Gender and Peacebuilding at USIP, moderated the event.

O’Neill talked about the importance of keeping our response to violent extremism in perspective. We often emphasize a securitized response, which undoubtedly is necessary. But a securitized response should not occur at the expense of solving broad, structural issues. We should not allow ourselves to be radicalized when countering extremism. A more appropriate approach would be to work on countering the “violent exclusion” of women and how that feeds into other problems.

Hayward explained the role of religion in CVE. She claimed it was critical to engage religious leaders and actors and use their authority to counter religion-based messages that legitimate and fuel extremism. In particular, she called for more women religious leaders to get involved. They can provide important psychosocial support, recognize radicalization and bridge religious divides.

Oudraat addressed three problems that dominate discussions on women and CVE:

  1. They ignore the gendered nature of security and are oblivious to the relationship between gender equality and status of women on one hand and violent conflict on the other hand.
  2. Many people have a misguided idea of the role and power of women in societies. There is a widespread idea that women are not visible in the public sphere, but are powerful in the private sphere, at home with their families, which makes them great agents for CVE. This is not true—a lot of women lack power even inside their families.
  3. Most of the discussions on women and CVE are not linked to the UN’s Women, Peace and Security (WPS) agenda. Gender equality is core to sustainable peace, so if we’re not linking CVE to the agenda, then we’re not taking the agenda seriously.

Chowdhury echoed Oudraat’s words and reiterated the importance of CVE as a component of the WPS. He said the agenda is centered on three pillars: participation, prevention and protection of women in conflict situations. The most important pillar is the first one, because if we have participation at all decision-making levels, it will ease the need for protection and prevention. Chowdhury emphasized maintaining a longer-term perspective in CVE. We often take the “hardware” approach to CVE by relying on military efforts. But we must also concentrate on promoting a culture of peace in which children grow up learning that they can resolve problems through non-violent means.

Chowdhury also called for a more determined and forceful approach towards inclusion of women. The world has paid “lip service” to women’s equality, but patriarchal attitudes have set us back time and again.

Bangura focused on women in ISIS, which understands better than state actors the importance of recruiting women and including them in governance. While the radical Islamic organization actively enlists smart women, we are still debating whether to include women in counterterrorism strategies. ISIS understands that when it targets women, it degrades, humiliates and destroys a society. In order to fight ISIS, we need to develop creative solutions, because our current tools are not sufficient. One solution is providing space for women in the counterterrorism effort, such as mothers who can provide insight on the radicalization process their children go through in order to join ISIS.

The panelists agreed that the international community must develop a more sophisticated understanding of gender dynamics as part of CVE. O’Neill and Oudraat pointed out that extremist groups’ ability to appeal to a man and woman’s sense of agency drives recruitment.

Chowdhury and Oudraat also stressed the value of National Action Plans (NAP) in future CVE efforts. These are plans that all UN member states are obligated to prepare, but so far only 43 out of 193 member states have prepared a plan. NAPs include each country’s comprehensive CVE strategy and bridge the distinction between what’s happening domestically and what’s happening internationally. These plans allow the international community to hold governments accountable for their CVE efforts, which is one way to extract national-level commitment. Tangible change should begin with serious treatment of women’s issues. Chowdhury warned that so long as millions of women are marginalized and impoverished, violent extremism will continue to spread.

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