A Panoramic Gender Lens to Fight Terrorism and Counter Violent Extremism

This October 2018, President Trump’s administration is required to submit the Women, Peace, and Security implementation strategy to the U.S. Congress. The 2017 Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) Act, passed 17 years after the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 (2000), ensures the promotion of women’s meaningful participation in processes seeking to prevent, mitigate, or resolve violent conflict. The WPS Act builds upon the Obama administration’s 2011 executive order 13595, which made women’s engagement a central aspect of the U.S. policy framework to prevent and resolve conflict. The current enactment is groundbreaking, making the United States one of only two countries in the world to create a legal obligation to address WPS. However, its key assumptions have fallen prey to problematic stereotypes. Though the act and the executive order make important strides by focusing on women as agents of change, instead of victims of violence, both tend to ignore women’s roles as perpetrators, enablers, and victims of terrorism, and as agents of change. Thus, they fail to take a holistic and comprehensive approach of women’s roles in conflict and security.

For years, women’s movements have played an important role in integrating their needs in conflict resolution and peace processes. As the WPS Act states, women have achieved “significant success in moderating violent extremism; countering terrorism; resolving disputes through nonviolent mediation and negotiation; and stabilizing societies by enhancing the effectiveness of security services, peacekeeping efforts, institutions, and decision-making processes.” For example, in Syria, where the dire conflict creates “fertile ground” for terrorism, women prove to be a strong constituency for peace and countering violent extremism. Significant steps have been made to include women’s voices in the peace process. The process initially started with the Geneva I conference in 2012, at which point there were no women at the table nor at the margins. Identifying an essential need, as well as a potential risk, women civil society representatives mobilized to establish a parallel meeting in the lead-up to the 2014 Geneva II conference, thereby creating the Syrian Women’s Initiative for Peace and Democracy. This mobilization proved fruitful when, in January 2016, the peace process resumed, and Syrian women were part of the official delegations. Though the conflict rages on, Syrian women have paved the way to be part of the resolution and reconstruction of their country, ensuring that policies moving forward will be inclusive of women’s voices.

Similarly, Colombia is highly lauded for its involvement of women in the 2016 peace agreement, which ended 50 years of armed civil conflict that was responsible for thousands of deaths and millions of people displaced. The course to include women’s voices at the table was likewise challenging and protracted. During the first formal talks in November 2012, only 1 of 20 negotiators was female. The 2013 National Summit of Women and Peace sought to change that, and, in 2015, women were 20 percent of the government delegates and 43 percent of the opposing Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerilla group (consistent with the percentage of female fighters). While the durability of the peace agreement is uncertain, the consequences of women’s empowerment in the process will undoubtedly be felt. For example, over half of the judges in the war tribunals are women, an opportunity of noteworthy significance.

However, as the context of peace and security changed and violent extremism began to take hold across the globe, it was not until recently that terrorism was recognized as a key challenge for the WPS agenda. The spread of terrorism and extremism has taken countless lives and destroyed communities. In response, a raft of strategies and action plans to counter these grave threats have been put in place. However, a number of these strategies have tended to view the role of women and girls in preventing and moderating violent extremism solely, but not in promoting nor participating in violent activities; this risks the spread of dangerous gender convictions. The United Kingdom’s counterterrorism strategy, CONTEST, has similarly maintained gender stereotypes, particularly in its antiradicalization initiative, Prevent. Prior to the 2011 revision, the Prevent strategy recognized Muslim women as counterterrorism resources because of their position “at the heart not only of their communities but also of their families.” This language received criticism from the then-UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights due to its preservation of gender norms. The revised version took this language out but likewise did not flesh out women’s role in countering or perpetuating terrorism. Moreover, this strategy has received considerable backlash due to its ineffectiveness and toxicity. Most notably, Maina Kiai, former UN special rapporteur on the right to freedom of assembly, expressed concerns that, “By dividing, stigmati[z]ing and alienating segments of the population, Prevent could end up promoting extremism, rather than countering it.”

There still exists an enormous paucity in gender analysis as it relates to terrorism and violent extremism. Fionnuala Ní Aoláin, the current UN special rapporteur on counterterrorism and human rights, notes that, “[I]t remains the case that when women come into view in terrorism and counter-terrorism policy, they typically do so as the wives, daughters, sisters and mothers of terrorist actors, or as the archetypal victims of senseless terrorist acts whose effects on the most vulnerable (women) underscores the unacceptability of terrorist targeting.” Boko Haram, however, was recently found to favor women as suicide bombers; these numbers only skyrocketed after the April 2014 abduction of female students. To Boko Haram, women are unassuming tools to achieve their objectives. And, to the women perpetuating the violence, some may be coerced, but others may volunteer as a way to escape the structural violence against women, in which many are raped by their Boko Haram “husbands.”

Women and girls from fragile economic and political contexts are not the sole prey to terrorist narratives and ideologies. A recent report shows that women and girls from Europe have been radicalized and join ISIS after being seduced by a “a twisted version of empowerment.” The appeals identified in the research include: “a rejection of Western feminism, online contact with recruiters who offer marriage and adventure, peer or family influence, adherence to ISIS ideology, naivety and romantic optimism, and the chance to be part of something new, exciting and illicit.” This dispels many notions surrounding the siren call of violent extremism, as identified drivers often point to political and economic disempowerment as reasons for radicalization. It likewise dismisses the perception that women are inherently agents of peace.

Though violence affects both men and women, girls and boys, the deeply rooted structural inequalities and discrimination make women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transsexual, and intersex people more vulnerable to violence. Exacerbated by these structural biases, counterterrorism measures also may inadvertently disseminate discriminatory views. The government of Maiduguri, a town in Nigeria frequently besieged by Boko Haram’s suicide bombings, recently began a public awareness campaign in order to address the rise of women and children as bombers. The campaign includes billboards that say “Stop Terrorism,” with the image of a girl with explosives on her chest, as well as videos that feature young girls, imploring them to surrender. Experts have argued against its efficacy: “The policy is well intentioned, [but] it risks stigmatizing the bombers…[T]he widespread suspicion of women and girls that these attacks have resulted in already puts women and girls at a disadvantage in the community.”

Recognizing the various gender roles in terrorism, UN Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015) urged governments to establish knowledge on the drivers of radicalization of women and the impacts of counterterrorism strategies on women’s human rights and women’s organizations. Moving forward, gender analysis should be broadened, considering the perspectives of all sexes as perpetrators, enablers, and victims of terrorism, as well as agents of change. Moreover, despite some success stories, the participation of women and other disadvantaged groups in the design and implementation of such policies and programs also proves to be severely lacking and problematic. Thus, an enabling environment is required in any country context in which a gendered counterterrorism strategy would succeed. This involves addressing the social and structural drivers for gendered violence and discrimination.

The fight for and defense of women’s rights in vulnerable contexts remains essential and fundamental. Condemning and bringing light to women’s rights violations only paves the way for an enabling gender environment in the future. Similarly, those countries or multilateral organizations that seek to be a paradigm of human rights must incorporate a gender perspective into counterterrorism policies.

The WPS Act acknowledged that the United States “should be a global leader in promoting the meaningful participation of women in conflict prevention, management, and resolution, and post-conflict relief and recovery efforts.” It is in the U.S. national security interests to design and implement the most effective counterterrorism strategy possible—and undeniably, a gender approach that recognizes the various roles of women and girls to countering terrorism and resolving conflict will lead to the most success. This International Women’s Day should mark the year in which gender is placed as a focus and lens to counter terrorism.

Lana Baydas is a senior fellow with the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Lauren Mooney is a program manager and research associate with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative. Paul Nguyen-Cong-Duc is an independent researcher with the CSIS Human Rights Initiative.

Commentary is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

© 2018 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.

Lana Baydas
Senior Associate (Non-resident), Human Rights Initiative

Lauren Mooney

Paul Nguyen-Cong-Duc

Independent Researcher, Human Rights Initiative