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Curbing The Tide of Violent Extremism Needs Women’s Voices and Inclusion

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Saturday, December 1st, 2018
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On 23 May 2017, the city of Marawi, Philippines, a bustling city In the southern island of Mindanao , was taken over by the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL/ISIS)-aligned forces. The ensuing five-month-long armed conflict displaced nearly 400,000 people from the area. The siege had devastating and lasting consequences for the community, especially for displaced women and girls who lacked access to women’s health services and were left more vulnerable to gender-based violence in the evacuation centres.

Many of the women of Marawi had seen this coming. They told us they had seen the escalation in ambushes and violence well before the siege, and also a surge in religious and conservative practices, such as the closure of entertainment venues and women and girls being forced to dress conservatively. When the fighting broke out, these women and their families fled the city, as their homes and livelihoods were destroyed.

Salma* was among these women.

When I met her at an evacuation centre on the outskirts of Marawi nine months after the battle, she had little hope of seeing her home and business again. Marawi is the first city in the Philippines to have been completely destroyed by the conflict, and the shop that Salma had built is probably now in rubbles. Her husband migrated in search of construction work, leaving her to care for their five children in the evacuation centre. They relied on the bag of rice and basic supplies delivered by humanitarian relief teams once a fortnight.

Lately this support has been arriving only intermittently.

Stories like Salma’s remind us, time and again, that to restore peace and prevent violent extremism in the future, women must play a critical role in recovery efforts, in decision-making and prevention.

Women and women’s civil society groups have worked through formal and informal channels for decades, forging peace in the face of violence. The Women, Peace and Security Agenda, bolstered by a number of UN Security Council resolutions and women’s voices and experiences from around the world, now provides the international framework for ensuring women’s participation and leadership in conflict resolution and peacebuilding. It has also generated a robust body of knowledge, since the adoption of the seminal UN Security Council resolution 1325 in 2000, that shows how peace is inextricably linked to equality between men and women, and how violence, including extremist violence, is underpinned by gender inequality.

While the need to engage with communities is understood to be critical for prevention of the spread of extremism, the approach has largely focused on research and engagement with young men, as the “at-risk” group susceptible to extremist ideas and actions. What has been sorely missing is understanding and responding to the gender dynamics of this threat and engaging women at the community level.

Gender dynamics play out every day, everywhere—from what kind of jobs and wages men and women get, how much time they spend in providing care, to the different challenges they experience during conflicts and disasters. The phenomenon of violent extremism is not exempt from these dynamics. For instance, terrorist and violent extremist groups manipulate the gender stereotypes that are prevalent in a society to recruit men and women to their ranks, promoting violent notions of masculinity. Across Asia, women have acted as recruiters, or supporters of their male family members to fight with ISIS-aligned forces. Women and girls are also being recruited, forcibly or willingly, to these groups. Female suicide bombers are an increasingly worrying phenomenon in the region, with Indonesia and Bangladesh having both experienced an increase in terrorist acts perpetrated by women since late 2016.

But this is just half the picture. Women are not only victims or perpetrators of terrorism. Many have been and continue to be on the frontlines of prevention efforts, leading innovations. A women’s school for peace in Poso, Indonesia has developed a community warning system to prevent the escalation of inter-religious incidents into violence. This school for peace—the Mosintuwu Institute— engages women of diverse religions in peace education, supports women-led media campaigns on political, social and cultural issues, and facilitates women’s discussion and community organizing between villages.

Women shape community and family values, and are valued allies in identifying and intervening at early signs of radicalization and in influencing the decisions of potential recruits. From using different forms of media to promote counter narratives, to working as police officers with strong ties with the communities they serve, and as women ulamas (religious leaders) in Indonesia, women are challenging extremist ideologies and promoting tolerance and gender equality. Their contributions, however, remain largely invisible, undervalued and hence under-funded. Their marginalization from decision-making processes, particularly at senior levels, where strategies are designed and implemented, sabotages the efforts to curb the rising tide of extremism. Because, the very promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment is a counter-measure to the spread of extremism.

In Marawi, the women told us that they are often excluded from consultations, planning, and programming for the return. Excluding women from such processes prevents policy makers from gaining insights into the gendered drivers and dynamics of violent extremism, as well as the strategies that women use to prevent and address it. If we are serious about reversing the spread of violent extremism, we have to get serious about prioritizing women’s rights, empowerment, participation and leadership—within local communities, as well as in national and regional decision-making.

In April 2017, UN Women began working with Asian countries affected by the growing threat of violent extremism to promote the unique role of women in creating peaceful societies. The regional programme titled, “Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities”, funded by the Government of Japan, has already produced significant results in Indonesia and Bangladesh. Not only has it supported and made visible the multifaceted roles that women can play as promoters of social cohesion and preventers of conflict, but it has empowered women economically and politically, at the local level. To date, 2000 women across six districts in Java Island, Indonesia, have increased their business and leadership skills, with 60 local products developed and marketed. In addition, 1500 women are enrolled in saving and loan schemes through women’s cooperative groups that promote a spirit of tolerance among the community. In Bangladesh, 1,200 women across the districts of Cox’s Bazar, Dinajpur, Jessore, Joypurhat, Moulvibazar and Shatkhira are receiving support through the programme, including funding for 600 women to start up or expand their businesses.

Thus empowered, these women have also been able to raise their voices collectively to promote a spirit of tolerance for diversity and have built resilience against extremist ideologies within their own communities. For example, 30 villages in Indonesia have built their own model of a Peace Village [Kampung Damai] that promotes social cohesion through economic empowerment. In Bangladesh, theatre shows attended by more than 90,000 people are raising awareness about the importance of social cohesion and coexistence to curb the tide of extremism.

With new and innovative research, as well as novel tools to collect sex-disaggregated and gender-sensitive data, the programme is contributing to better understanding the role of women in building social cohesion and creating peaceful societies.

This programme, and many other similar initiatives, have uncovered an irrefutable strategy and evidence which says: only when we listen to – and learn from – women’s voices, will our goal of more peaceful communities become a reality.

* The real name has been withheld to safeguard the identity of the woman.

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