The Complexities of Women, Peace, Security and Countering Violent Extremism

In a recent post, Fionnuala Ní Aoláin analyzes the UN Security Council Counter-Terrorism Committee’s (CTC) first-ever open briefing on the role of women in countering terrorism and violent extremism on September 9. Noting the significance of this briefing, Ní Aoláin identifies a number of reasons to be cautious of this conjoining in a context where both the UN’s women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda and its system on countering terrorism and violent extremism (CT/CVE) have proceeded on parallel tracks conceptually, programmatically, and institutionally. These reasons include a concerning emphasis on women’s contributions as mothers, insufficient attention to female violence, as well as the risks of turning WPS into nothing more than a security instrument, and of the CT/CVE agenda crowding out other issues in ensuring women’s security. As moderator of the CTC open briefing (my statement is here) and author of the report on the topic for the forthcoming global study on the implementation of resolution 1325, I share Ní Aoláin’s concern for greater precision about how these domains are potentially complementary, as well as the limitations in their overlap.

As always, then, the devil is in the details. First and foremost is the need for clarity around the dividing line between women’s rights and WPS issues on the one hand, and countering violent extremism and terrorism, on the other. This issue, of course, is part of the broader challenge facing the field of countering violent extremism as it moves further upstream to encompass areas of development, rule of law, and human rights — to the concern of stakeholders in these areas, as well as many CVE practitioners. And when it comes to WPS and CT/CVE, there can be a tendency to equate the two without more, implying that women should only be empowered or educated or encouraged to participate as a means to the end of countering violent extremism and terrorism. (See UNSCR 2178 (2014), UNSCR 2195 (2014), and U.N. Security Council Presidential Statement of 28 October 2014.)

Yet, in reality, women are often already on the frontlines of combating terrorism and violent extremism in their communities, from assisting victims of terrorism to negotiating ceasefires to contributing to the equal and stable societies to which the WPS and CT/CVE agendas aspire. The big question, then, is how to support the work women do in countering violent extremism and terrorism without instrumentalizing or securitizing it or indeed, women’s rights advocacy more broadly. 

The feminism-as-counterterrorism strategy that casts women’s rights, empowerment, participation, or the WPS agenda as counterterrorism tools rather than ends in and of themselves may have some appeal for those desperate to keep a spotlight on women’s rights in an omnipotent security environment. But ultimately it is an instrumentalist approach that opens up the possibility of women’s rights being bartered away if such a move is seen to further national security in a given context.

Risks from securitization are also particularly rife when it comes to women. The UK’s marginalizing emphasis on Muslim women in its pre-2011 Prevent program is a case in point (see my analysis here). Too close an association between national security and women’s rights agendas invites backlash from violent extremists, as well as requiring proximity to unreformed security services in contexts where — as stressed by all three civil society presentations at the CTC open briefing (see here, here, and here) — abusive practices by security services hinder the work of women’s rights advocates and squeeze them between terror and counterterror on a daily basis. Moving forward, the gender-specific challenges for women who operate in increasingly restrictive, polarized, and volatile environments need to be better understood and addressed.

To be clear, as evident from the CTC open briefing, the status quo of excluding women from policy and practices in this area cannot continue. While it is important not to overstate how much countering violent extremism and terrorism is of concern to the WPS agenda and vice versa, it is equally important not to downplay the overlaps. The last 15 years have been beset by a consequential failure to authentically address the intersections of WPS with violent extremism and efforts at fighting its occurrence. These failures range from the continued impunity for terrorists who directly and differently target women and girls’ security in conflict and post-conflict settings to failure to learn from gender-sensitive disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration for women returning from ISIS to gender-based abuses in the name of national security — including particularly discriminatory anti-terrorism financing rules that cut funding to women’s organizations — that frustrate the full implementation of the WPS agenda.

But how women are included matters and ahead lay much more difficult policy questions. These include understanding if, and when, categorizing or documenting certain activities as CVE will be too unsafe, unprincipled, or counter-productive, as well as how to preserve a well-resourced and non-securitized space for women’s civil society (see generally here). Consultation with local women’s groups must guide all aspects of these policy questions but governments’ commitments also need to go beyond the local or informal level to change national security architecture, including through gender-sensitive security sector reform. Instrumentalization, securitization, and co-option are not buzzwords but instead profound human rights and efficacy challenges in current efforts to engage women in CT/CVE.

It is true, as Ní Aoláin notes, that some aspects of the CTC open briefing, particularly some State interventions, fell short of grappling with these challenges, instead falling back on familiar tropes and gender stereotypes, such as those that promote women’s roles as mothers. However, a number of other critical issues — the need to combat impunity for terrorist violence against women and girls; problems in access to funding for women’s organizations; concrete good practices in how women combat terrorism and violent extremism in their communities and their barriers; a more complicated picture of women’s engagement in violent extremism, including the need to address alienation as a root cause; the need for more research and evidence-based approaches; and the gender and human rights issues at stake (see OHCHR’s statement here in particular) — were also firmly put on the table. The question now is how much States will respond to these challenges, particularly in light of the ever-growing specter of women’s engagement in violent extremism which provides the impetus for much of the current attention to women’s roles in CT/CVE but which may also ultimately circumscribe the terms of such attention.


About the Author(s)

Jayne Huckerby

Clinical professor of law and director of the International Human Rights Clinic at the Duke University School of Law and is an advisor to, and a witness for, the NCCIT. Follow her on Twitter: @jaynehuckerby.