Ask the right questions about gender and violent extremism

When designing programmes to tackle violent extremism, we need to acknowledge the multiple roles gender plays.

There is an emerging debate around the links between domestic violence, gender-based violence and the profile of ‘lone’ terrorist attackers. In the US, for instance, over one-third of individuals who committed or contributed to such deadly violence reportedly had a record of “domestic abuse or other sexual violence or harassment against women”.

Research has shown that gender-based violence is a common manifestation of unequal power relations within societies and that conflict often has its roots in gender inequality. Domestic violence and gender-based violence can be a way for men to not only reinforce the traditional patriarchal gender roles used to control women, but also to validate their own feelings of insecurity derived from culturally prescribed gender roles. 

Violence perpetrated against women within the domestic sphere therefore has wide implications for state and regional security. Recent research on gender-based violence and violent extremism argued that a better predictor of national and regional peacefulness is the overall level of violence against women and girls, rather than indicators such as levels of democracy and wealth.

Gender inequality and extremist groups

Gender roles and gender inequality are frequently used by extremist groups such as ISIS and Boko Haram in their recruitment strategies and they use gender-based violence as a weapon of terror and control.

While female recruits might join extremist groups as an act of empowerment, gender roles can also be used to attract or retain male recruits, by offering women and girls as potential wives or sexual trophies – so-called ‘wages of war’. This reinforces socio-cultural norms of masculinity and what it means to be a man.

Research on the links between domestic violence and violent extremism is more readily available in the western context, through details of the backgrounds and home lives of ‘lone’ attackers’. In conflict contexts, there is far greater focus on sexual and gender-based violence committed by extremist groups collectively, as in the case of the Yazidi women and girls in Iraq and the abductions of Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria.

Meanwhile, other types of gender-based violence, like intimate partner violence, which affect many more women, receive far less attention. Yet, if left unchecked, such dysfunctional acts of aggression can spread throughout society and become normalised.

Asking the right questions

It is therefore crucial that programming on violent extremism addresses the many ways in which gender interacts with violent extremism. These can range from creating sympathy to violent extremism, to active fighting and recruitment.

International Alert’s recent research on conflict-affected and displaced Syrians, for instance, highlights how expectations of what it is to be a man or woman can create pressures for individuals to join armed groups.

Patriarchal ideologies of control and subordination of women and girls are in some contexts, like in Kenya, a motivating factor for women and girls to join armed groups. Joining can be a way for women and girls – as well as men and boys – to escape the rigid, patriarchal and elder-dominated structures of their families and communities.

In Tajikistan, International Alert’s research found that sexual and gender-based violence are tackled more effectively through the long-term economic empowerment of women, while importantly also engaging men and informal community leaders to reinforce positive gender norms and change harmful ones. 

So it should come as little surprise that improving the socio-economic status of women and addressing the root causes of gender-based violence has been shown to help tackle violent extremism in a range of ways.

Programming on preventing violent extremism doesn’t need to reinvent the wheel – it can draw on the decades of good practices from peacebuilding practitioners and development workers which take long-term approaches. This includes looking at how gender inequalities intersect with other forms of socio-economic inequality, including age, class, caste, race, ethnicity and location, frequently exacerbating the injustices associated with them.

Addressing the exclusion of women in societies should be at the heart of preventing violent extremism and counter-terrorism strategies. Otherwise, we run the risk of focusing solely on the symptoms of conflict, without addressing its root causes.