A conference aiming at discussing critical gender dimensions in preventing violent extremism was organized at Maison de la Paix in Geneva on April 6th 2016. The discussion was led by Carol Bellamy, Chair of the Board of Directors of the Global Partnership for Education and former Executive Director of UNICEF, and Elizabeth Prügl, professor of International Relations and Political Science at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva.
Prevention against violent extremism, a top priority at the international level
Though dealing with terrorism has been at the top of the UN's agenda for several years, the focus has recently shifted towards acknowledging the importance of prevention rather than security in order to counter violent extremism. The UN has introduced in January its new Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon has stated that “addressing this challenge goes to the heart of the United Nations. It requires a unified response. And it compels us to act in a way that solves –rather than multiplies - the problem”.
This new plan of action calls for a comprehensive approach, in which, besides developing counter-terrorism security measures, the roots of violent extremism should be intensively considered and studied. This would eventually enable the international community to understand and address the underlying conditions that push individuals to radicalize and join violent extremism groups. It provides 70 recommendations, all based on five inter-related points: the utmost importance of prevention; of principled leadership and effective constitutions; of joint promotion of prevention and human rights; and, finally, governments and UN engagements.
Elizabeth Prügl explained how, for the first time, the relation between gender and terrorism has also been addressed: the United Nations called on countries to lead research on this particular subject and to find the drivers that would push women to join extremism groups. Communities need to be brought together to contribute and develop a new understanding, new language through strict and common definitions of each terms involved that would enable to comprehend and address the underlying causes of violent extremism.
The importance of considering women’s role in violent extremism through the prism of gender studies
According to Carol Bellamy, the intersection between gender and violent extremism needs to be thoroughly studied; however, Elizabeth Prügl qualified her statement by reminding her that the last time the international community decided to save women led to the disastrous experience of Afghanistan. Indeed, one of the arguments used to legitimate international interventions in 2003 was the necessity to save women from their unfortunate plight, as they were considered "enslaved" by the oppressive Taliban system. Though the situation of women in Afghanistan did arguably become better - there is now the highest rate of scolarization ever in the country -, the intervention in itself had severe negative repercussions. Would countering violent extremism through this prism be a replay of that? The main source of worries, in her opinion, resides in the idea that governments would use the gender factor in order to fuel their own agendas and legitimate their actions.
Carol Bellamy replied by stressing the fact that, though gender is a main subject in UN talks, there are still very little concrete actions done and gender is still not mainstreamed. Women need to be focused on: if precedent centuries have seen wars make more victims out of soldiers and military, victims of wars in the 21th century are overwhelmingly women and children. However, women aren’t only victims and should not be considered as such, as it would be a very restrictive view. The importance of women’s roles in peace-talks, negotiations and peacebuilding operations cannot be understated and need to be developed. Furthermore, women aren’t a single entity: they are also perpetrators of violence, in the same way men can be victims as well.
Women are contributors of an active society and should be considered as such: all women’s roles, including their participations in violent extremism groups, should be addressed. That is why more research dedicated to them and their relation to violent extremism is indeed needed.
The need for grassroots, localized actions
A promising approach would be to focalize prevention through a local approach, at a grassroot level. Preventive measures against violent extremism are focused on men and boys: they will remain a failure if they do not include and give more attention to women and girls. More concretely, most of the interventions in preventing violent extremism at the local level would be related to security issues rather than developmental ones; however, Carol Bellamy reaffirmed that education and open dialogue should nonetheless not be ignored and can be useful contributions.
Each case should be contextualized and studied through this local prism. For instance, she remembered the case of clans fighting each other: women had an impact on the end of the conflict by joining forces, above sectarian considerations, and demanding the fight to stop in order for their children to be able to go back to school. What already worked should be identified and contextualized: women have many roles and their implication and involvement in crisis situations and prevention actions should not be reduced to only mothers and teachers. Solutions are contextual and reside in the local sphere.
On the importance of taking into account all gender related drivers and having common definitions
Carol Bellamy also stressed out the importance of having a common definition of violent extremism. As enabling governments to each adopt their owns is allowing them to choose according to what better suits their interests and to target particular groups such as Egypt’s example.
One concern from the audience was also the reduction of the notion of “gender” to women: should there not be a focus on toxic masculinity and its impact on violent extremism as well? Carol Bellamy’s response was that all drivers in general - leading individuals to violent extremism - are to be understood without any exceptions.
In any cases, a solid base information is needed, and all gender’s related drivers should be taken into account in order for prevention against violent extremism to be successful.
Léa Guinet, Research Assistant at CIPADH