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How violent extremism links to violence against women

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(This is part of the #16Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence campaign. Look here for a new blog post on this topic over the next two weeks.)

The events of the past two weeks -- the high-profile extremist violence in Beirut, Paris and Mali –challenge us to  think about what it means to be female in groups that endorse or endure these appalling atrocities.   As a social scientist who has spent decades studying gender-based violence, I am reminded of a recent discussion at the United Nations General Assembly in September, where a panel of experts looked at “ Integrating a Gender Dimension in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism: Policy and Practice.” 

Violent extremist groups “have attacked women and imposed limits on their dress, mobility, and freedom of expression for a long time. We know women’s full participation in society is good for everyone. We cannot let the lack of a gender focus be a barrier to progress anymore,” said Ingvild Stub, State Secretary in the Norwegian Prime Minister’s Office.   
Gender, she and other experts agreed, lies at the heart of today’s challenge. Violent extremist groups know this well: They don’t simply abduct and assault women and girls—they also recruit, employ, and extort them, exploiting inequalities and biased norms, to advance extremist causes. 

From Boko Haram to ISIS, the relationship between terrorism and violence against women has never been more pervasive. A recent article in the New York Times lays out the struggle of three Syrian women battling oppression, poverty, violence, forced marriage and mental and physical abuse.  Reports of female suicide bombers in Nigeria and Cameroon are linked to the kidnappings and violence against girls and young women.  

To suggest that jobs, growth, or better governance alone can stem this alarming trend is not enough.  What other approaches can development practitioners consider?
  • Closing gender gaps can directly undermine extremist recruiting strategies. Most extremist groups use regressive gender stereotypes to recruit young men. They promise power in the form of dominance over women. Some use rape to create group cohesion, offering fighters the chance to father a new generation of militants. Investing in women and girls through education and training, supporting them as agents in determining the course of their own lives, and tackling biased norms can help change the views that foster these practices.
  • Securing the physical safety of women and girls can reduce their vulnerability to abduction and recruitment. Thousands of women kidnapped into extremist groups have no choice in the matter at all. Women living in regions torn by conflict face daily threats to their security, including harassment and rape. For some, supporting an extremist group is the least dangerous option. Others join to avenge past violence or prevent violence against others. A more secure world for women counteracts a powerful “push” factor into extremist groups.
  • Enhancing women’s economic security deprives extremist groups of a recruiting tool. In open-conflict areas, economic insecurity runs high. Widows and daughters of dead combatants are vulnerable to recruitment as messengers, spies, or weapons-traffickers—simply to keep themselves and their families alive. Better safety nets and livelihoods training would make incentives offered by extremist groups less attractive.
  • Expanding women’s political inclusion can help build peace and prevent extremism. Violent extremism feeds on conflict. In October, we celebrated the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 -- which reinforced the key role women play in peacebuilding, including resolving the conflicts that extremist groups often manipulate to their advantage.
  • Advancing and protecting gains in gender equality give women and girls a reason to turn away from extremism. Young women have for centuries joined armed groups as a means of challenging oppressive, biased norms and building new societies that promise them lives of meaning, value, and dignity. The opportunity to build an idealized world today attracts many young women who feel marginalized.
 The spread of today’s extremist groups reflects less on their strategic prowess or military might than on their capacity to exploit and harness the aspirations of young people—along with existing inequalities and deprivations—to their advantage. In a world that offers more compelling roles, opportunities, and futures to men and women equally, extremism and the barbaric violence it visits on women and girls in particular will have far less appeal.


Alys Willman

Former Senior Social Development Specialist, Fragility, Conflict & Violence Group

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