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Gender and violent extremism: Four points for coordinated action on the C/PVE agenda

2020 marks the 15th anniversary of the 7/7 attacks in London. In the years since the attacks, work on the prevention and countering of violent extremism (P/CVE) has progressed across a range of areas.

But as we move into the next decade, the sector needs to renew its understanding of what a truly holistic approach to P/CVE looks like. We need to break down silos and encourage a wider, integrated approach that takes into account a broader range of factors, including gender.

Limited progress

There has been some progress in the field. We have an increasing amount of information and experience related to P/CVE frameworks and agendas, including UNSCR Resolutions 1373 and 2178 on terrorism.

We also have a range of state frameworks and commitments on terrorism. We know that what works for sound poverty reduction and economic development, like inclusive education, social and financial inclusion, and support for political stability and transparency are also good for preventing violent extremism.

However, gaps and challenges in research and in practice remain. As an example, we lack a clear framework for how to address the more than 50,000 people who have travelled to Levant to participate in conflict in Syria and Iraq.

The gender dimension

Women act as both perpetrators and preventors of violent extremism. The end of the IS territorial hold in Syria has left some 6,902 returning foreign women and 6,577 foreign minors in the throes of uncertainty, with about 8% IS returnees recorded to be women.

Terrorist fighters tend to primarily be young men. However, women and girls are also involved in extremist activity, with dynamic and varied roles within terrorist groups. The experiences of women and minors, as well as the gendered drivers of violence such as harmful masculine ‘hero’ stereotypes, remain controversial issues in counter-terrorism.

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The high-profile case of Shamima Begum, a British-born woman who left the UK in 2015 to join foreign extremists fighting in Syria, brought to the fore complex questions of the gender dimensions of P/CVE and how to address those who return to their home countries. It exposed the fact that states do not always have clear definitions of terrorist action nor coordinated policies on return and reintegration, a key element to any comprehensive P/CVE policy.

The need for a new and nuanced approach

Too often, women are either stripped of their agency entirely in P/CVE approaches and seen as powerless victims in a perceived masculine terrorist agenda. Conversely, their vulnerabilities can go unrecognised and women can be treated harshly by systems that fail to account for the diverse experiences of individuals who participate in extremist activity.

No single solution will work, but the evidence is clear that a wide-ranging approach which brings together international, regional, national and community actors across sectors is needed to build safer and more resilient communities.

We also know that overall, societies that are closer to gender equality are most likely to cultivate more stable, less violent social and political environments.

Four points for the future of P/CVE

Here are four things to remember on this important anniversary about gender and P/CVE coming into the new decade:

  1. We don’t have a good definition of what it means to ‘participate’ in violent extremism, and terminology across P/CVE remains politicised, controversial and contested: Does participation in extremist groups mean serving as active fighters? As, for example, supporters, informants, sympathisers? Where do women and their varied roles fit into this from a societal and legal perspective?
  2. We don’t have a nuanced account for gender in P/CVE: Approaches can sometimes swing the pendulum too far towards seeing women and girls as victims lacking any agency – or coming down too harshly, entirely ignoring contextual factors and vulnerabilities. The reality lies somewhere between the two, and the diverse experiences of women needs to be somehow taken into account.
  3. We don’t have a coordinated and systemised understanding of ‘what works’ to prevent violent extremism as well as rehabilitate and reintegrate returning foreign fighters, including women and children. Debates among the security, development and humanitarian communities rage on regarding the relative merits of direct and securitised approaches, targeting action head on with military and security actors, or approaches focused more on the social dimensions of prevention, focused on the sense of disenfranchisement and lack of inclusion in society which can breed extremism. Prisons are also often overstretched and ill-fitted for inclusive rehabilitation. We know far too much about what doesn’t work, but less about what does.
  4. Harmful norms about masculinity are a big part of the picture. Research has shown the influence of particular stereotypes of masculinity in the norms, culture and ideologies of extremist groups. A sound P/CVE strategy should incorporate an understanding of these factors and bring in new approaches to address them.