On July 10, 2019 I was honoured to moderate a meeting with women’s groups for the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, whose aim was to better diagnose the role of women in the prevention or instigation of violent extremism. The secretary- general remarked, “The women activists I met in Nairobi are among the many women across Africa who are leading the way in preventing the expansion of violent extremism from within their own communities. Women are on the frontlines of this fight: we must listen to them and support their efforts.” Recent efforts to enlist the participation of women in activities to combat radicalisation are encouraging, considering that for a long time, gender and security has been a blind-spot in counter-terrorism programmes.
Examination of the ever-evolving drivers of radicalisation and terrorism has gradually morphed perspectives of the role of the women, spanning from victims, perpetrators and lately, preventers of terrorism.
As Yanar Mohammed, co-founder and president of the Organisation of Women’s Freedom in Iraq, said during the UNSC’s open debate on Resolution 2242:‘Improving women’s participation in efforts to counter extremism and build peace is not just a normative concern about equality; including women’s insights offers a strategic advantage to those looking to build lasting peace and prevent conflict and violent extremism.’ For quite some time, the social construct of femininity was often expressed as one of subservience to men in the context of violent extremism. Media coverage of women affiliated to radical groups often portrayed female recruits as docile followers of their partners.
This stereotypical portrayal of women as harmless undermined the accuracy of counter radicalization policies as well as operational responses and entailed a missed opportunity in the war on violent extremism.
In Kosovo, for example, women were the first to detect unusual patterns of behaviour and activity in their homes and communities, including stockpiling of weapons. These signs were reported well before violence broke out. Despite the acknowledgement of the role women can play in preventing violent extremism, several current national approaches to violent extremism are not adequately gendered. More specifically, they are not systematically inclusive of women, nor are they substantively and sufficiently gender-specific or gender-sensitive.
In Kenya, there are encouraging signs that this narrative is changing. In Kwale County, itself a region that has been a recruitment reservoir, the county government has launched a strategic counter terrorism strategy that includes prioritising meaningful inclusion of women in the development and implementation of CVE approaches aimed at addressing the driver of violent extremism. The plan also includes allocating funds to train small women-driven civil society entities in countering violent extremism.
To effectively harness the potential of women to prevent violent extremism, it is important to understand the drivers of violent extremism and how women can help tackle these drivers in the first place.
The writer is Cabinet Secretary for Sports, Culture and Heritage.