On the frontline: women and terrorism

By on 26/03/2018 | Updated on 21/09/2023
Michelle Obama helped to highlight the kidnapping of hundreds of girls by Islamic terrorists Boko Harram – but progress has been slow in recognising the importance of female leadership on counter-terrorism.

With most terrorist atrocities carried out by men, women have been largely excluded from the struggle to contain terrorism. But a recent UN event heard that they have a crucial role to play in fashioning policies, leading initiatives and countering sexual violence

The focus on combatting terrorism generally falls on men – but this ignores women’s involvement, both as recruits and as victims. According to Israeli think tank the Institute for National Security Studies, 137 of the 623 terrorists involved in 2017’s terrorist attacks were women. And Michèle Coninsx, assistant secretary general and executive director at the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate (CTED), says that 10-20% of the westerners who’ve joined ISIS are women.

This important element of the counter-terrorism agenda came under the spotlight at the 62nd Commission on the Status of Women, a UN event held at the organisation’s New York HQ. Women are being targeted by terror groups both as recruits and victims, with sexual violence used as a tactic against them, the audience heard – with speakers arguing that it’s more important than ever to advance female leadership and participation in counter-terror policies.

Women in the frontline

Addressing an audience comprising member states, UN bodies and civil society organisations, UN Women executive director and UN under-secretary general Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka was joined on the panel by several high-level speakers – including Michèle Coninsx and Vladimir Voronkov, under-secretary general at the UN Office of Counter Terrorism (UNOCT).

The UN’s fifth review of its counter-terrorism strategy calls for member states to “highlight the important role of women in countering terrorism and violent extremism”, and many participants addressed how best to integrate gender in its sixth review – expected in June.

The strategy was adopted in 2006, but did not reference gender until its fifth review a decade later; an omission that highlights the slow pace of change in the upper echelons of the UN when it comes to implementing gender equality in the field.

The rise of the female bomber

Economic inequality, a lack of female leadership, and poverty were all identified by speakers as contributing to the growing radicalisation of women.

“The connection between gender inequality and terrorism has become undeniable,” Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka said. The fact that women and girls have been voluntarily joining these groups raises questions about why they would “choose that path rather than being part of mainstream society”, she added.

For Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka, poverty is a key driver to radicalisation: she spoke of desperate and bereaved women she had met in Syria, who’d accept help from a terrorist because their “anger is all consuming”.

Fauziya Abdi Ali, the president of the organisation Women in International Security Kenya, who worked on the UNDP Journey to Extremism report, argued that many women join terror groups because they lack essential services such as access to water and electricity.

Women as victims

Mr Voronkov also called for action to tackle the “unprecedented” number of female fighters being recruited by terror groups. And he warned that sexual violence is often used as a tactic to terrorise or coerce women, particularly in Nigeria, Syria and Afghanistan.

United Arab Emirates ambassador to the UN Lana Zaki Nusseibeh agreed that the use of gender-based crimes form “part of the strategic objectives” of terrorist groups. “We have to fight back, and need to insist on a comprehensive and inclusive approach,” she added.

Terrorists target women and women’s rights, using rape and sexual violence, said Ms Mlambo-Ngcuka. They rob women and girls of their right to education, and “destroy the social fabric of communities” by kidnapping girls.

Female leaders ‘critical’

UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka (Image courtesy: UN Women/Marco Grob).

Mlambo-Ngcuka urged member states to recognise that female representation “in significant amounts and at appropriate levels” is key in preventing terrorism.  “The involvement of women as leaders in countries is critical,” she said.

CTED chief Ms Coninsx agreed, calling for efforts to engage women in counter-terrorism to be “redoubled” if governments are to stand any chance of addressing the problem.

Women and women’s organisations are playing important roles in developing strategies to counter terrorism and extremism, said Ms Coninsx, a former federal prosecutor in Belgium. She also explained that CTED is focused on integrating gender into its activities, with gender considerations “fully mainstreamed”.

“Effective counter terrorism policies should be human rights compliant and gender sensitive,” she said. “Gender blind terrorism policies could be ineffective and negatively impact on women and girls’ rights.”

“Countering terrorism and violent extremism requires a collective effort and strengthened cooperation among all stakeholders,” she added, “and that includes women.”

Against tokenism

Mr Voronkov said UNOCT is also “committed to making gender a core priority”, with gender equality and women’s empowerment a key component of the 2016 UN plan of action to prevent violent extremism.

Yenny Wahid, director of The Wahid Institute, spoke of a strong link between a sense of autonomy in women and a lack of involvement in radical activities.

Ms Wahid warned against “decorative measures” – where women appear involved but are not empowered with budgets or any real responsibility. And Ms Nusseibeh argued that “empowering women is by itself a counter measure to radicalisation”.

Empowering women

 The ethos of empowerment has, said Ms Nusseibeh, informed UAE policy: there, she added, women hold two-thirds of public sector jobs and make up 47% of the nation’s workforce.

Women also have a role to play in developing the counter-terrorism capabilities of law enforcement, Ms Nusseibeh said, highlighting the opening of the Khawla bint Al Azwar Military School in 2014: creating the region’s first military college for women has made them “equal partners in maintaining security and stability”.

And alongside this work to involve women in defence, it’s essential to help women who’ve come into contact with Islamic terrorists to rebuild their lives. Japan has focused on this latter strand of work, explained Japanese ambassador to the UN Koro Bessho.

Safety and support

Tokyo has supported a US$1.2m UN Women project which aims to tackle extremism by supporting women, girls and former hostages of the Jihadist Boko Haram group in the Far North region of Cameroon, he said.

As well as providing sanctuary for victims, the project also contributes to the economic empowerment of women  – who receive kits to enable them to start small businesses.

One of the beneficiaries of this project was 36-year-old Saruta Andrawas. A mother of four, a widow and a former Boko Haram hostage, she had witnessed her husband being murdered by terrorists before she and her children were kidnapped.

She eventually escaped her captors and fled to the Women Cohesion Space, also supported by the Swedish Civil Contingencies Agency. There, Mr Bessho said, she received psychosocial assistance, learnt how to develop business plans and manage cash-flow, and was provided with the equipment to start her own small business processing and selling oil.

Give women the tools

Mr Bessho said, “I stress not only the importance of women’s protection, but also the importance of women’s empowerment.

“Women are not just victims. Their roles include shaping communities and family values, identifying and intervening at early signs of radicalisation, and using various forms of media to promote counter narratives.”

Indeed, one of the key messages to emerge from the discussion was the need to promote women’s economic empowerment. Unless they do so, the speakers argued, governments will struggle to stem the rising tide of female jihadists driven into the hands of terrorists by poverty and desperation.

As the discussion showed, gender equality throughout society must top the agenda for governments as they look at how to tap into women’s expertise and ensure a gender inclusive approach when to tackling terrorism and violent extremism.

About Martha Moss

Martha Moss is a journalist with a background covering European and UK politics. She was based in Brussels for four years, where she specialised in reporting on the European Parliament - particularly on environmental, gender, justice and international development issues.

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