SEATTLE — Violence against women and girls has been referred to as a “calling card” of many extremist groups. Amnesty International estimates that 2,000 Nigerian girls have been kidnapped, raped or forced into marriage. In 2015, the United Nations estimated that the Islamic State was holding 2,500 women and children captive and had forced 1,500 into sexual slavery. Even outside of extremist communities, extremism causes early marriage rates for girls, rates of domestic violence to rise and limits girls’ access to education.
Why Fighting Extremism with Women is Key
Women may have a lot to fear from terrorist organizations, but extremists have also proven very adept at appealing to women and getting them to join their causes, showing that fighting extremism with women is important to reducing extremists’ numbers. For example, according to Foreign Policy magazine, the Islamic State recruits women by “romanticiz[ing]the need for devout women to help create a new society.” Syrian experts estimate that more than 20 percent of the Islamic State’s recruits are women.
In reality, women play varied roles in terrorist organizations, actively working as recruiters, messengers, fighters and spies. However, the media often portrays women solely as victims of violent extremism, which terrorist organizations can exploit. Many checkpoints lack female security officers, meaning that women passing through checkpoints are not checked as thoroughly as men. Extremists can take advantage of security holes like these by dressing as women to avoid being searched. Extremists also often deploy women as suicide bombers because they can get through checkpoints more easily.
Women are especially important to extremist groups as recruiters, helping to ensure the groups’ futures. The Islamic State marries female recruits to male recruits as an incentive for men to join and stay with the movement. The movement also offers a stipend to recruits for every child born to the Islamic State, encouraging recruits to create anchors and making it more difficult for them to leave.
Female recruits are also very important in recruiting other women. In many conservative Muslim communities, women are less likely to work outside the home and more likely to socialize in all-female groups. These networks are often private and hard to penetrate, making it easy for women to recruit through these networks without opposition.
Extremist groups like the Islamic State lure women into their movements by promising each of them “a wonderful husband and a free house with top-of-the-line appliances, such as a fridge, microwave and even a milkshake machine,” as described by HuffPost. In other words, female recruits think they can improve their lives by joining extremists, even though the promises are not usually met. In fighting extremism with women, it is important to work toward helping them improve their lives and showing them that they do not need to join extremists in order to be happy and make a difference.
The U.N. reviewed peace processes from 1992 to 2011 and found that only 4 percent of signatories, 2 percent of chief mediators and 9 percent of negotiators were women. Countries are more peaceful and prosperous when women have equal rights and opportunities, but there are still very few women in official roles during peace negotiations. To stall female recruitment by extremists, USAID is fighting extremism with women by empowering women in crisis and conflict and getting them involved in political and peace processes.
In response to the U.N.’s data, the U.S. government issued the U.S. National Action Plan (NAP) on Women, Peace, and Security in 2011, the goal of which is to promote peaceful and resilient communities that can cope with adversity and continue to develop independently.
According to USAID, the NAP’s five objectives are to:
- Standardize a gendered approach to peace and security
- Promote women’s participation in peacebuilding and decision-making
- Protect women and children from violence, exploitation and abuse
- Engage women in conflict prevention, early warning and disaster risk reduction and invest in their health, education and economic empowerment
- Support safe, equitable access to relief and recovery assistance
USAID’s Partnerships and Accomplishments
Under the NAP’s umbrella, USAID has partnered with many local women’s organizations, such as Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) along the Tajikistan-Afghanistan border. SAVE operates as a part of Women Without Borders, an international NGO that has reached more than 2,000 mothers with its “MotherSchools: Parenting for Peace” Model. USAID and SAVE reached more than 150 mothers as of 2015, establishing schools and teaching mothers about preventing the radicalization of their sons and daughters.
With another local organization, Movement of Women for Peace in Eastern Mali, USAID brought more than 4,000 women together to take part in public debates and community service activities. The debates and activities are fighting extremism with women by helping them reconnect with each other and come together as one community. USAID has also worked in Kenya to address the specific policy needs of women and girls, training more than 2,300 women across 26 political parties in leadership and governance.
These successes illustrate the importance of including women and considering their role in the fight against violent extremism. Tapping into their unique position in areas affected by extremism can reduce its prevalence and help communities become more stable and prosperous.
– Kathryn Quelle