Iffat Idris with Ayat Abdelaziz
Publication Date
May 1, 2017

"Prevention is a major aspect of CVE, aiming to get at the root causes and factors that contribute to extremism and terrorism, by engaging with individuals, communities and others."

This Helpdesk Research Report from the Governance and Social Development Resource Centre (GSDRC) explores these questions: What does existing research tell us about women and countering violent extremism (CVE)? How can this be linked to the women, peace, and security (WPS) agenda? What policy guidance have international donor organisations issued on women and CVE?

As the desk-based research found, the experience of various women and CVE programmes confirms that women can and do play a significant role in preventing/countering violent extremism (P/CVE), but they need to be supported and empowered to do so. Few programmes focus specifically on women and CVE; far more common are wider CVE programmes in which women are participants/beneficiaries or, to a lesser extent, wider CVE programmes with women-centric components. Women-centric CVE programmes and components generally take one of the following approaches: a) focusing on mothers and building their capacity to influence thinking and behaviour in their children, families, and communities; b) building the capacity of women to actively participate in the CVE, peace, and security agendas, and c) promoting economic and social empowerment of women, thereby raising their status and voice in their families and communities and reducing their vulnerability to violent extremism.

The review found that a large number of networks, groups, and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are engaged in promoting women's role in P/CVE (see Annex A for a full list). Provision of capacity building and other support to such groups could enable them to more effectively promote CVE. Case studies of effective women and CVE initiatives, shared in the report, highlight very different approaches. For example, Morocco has sought to empower women economically, politically, and socially and to give them a voice in religious structures. The latter has been promoted through a training programme for women murshidats (preachers), who then work as religious guides within their communities, spreading moderate Islam. The Mothers Schools initiative has been implemented in a number of countries. It aims to build women's self-confidence and to give them the skills and knowledge to counter extremist narratives and change mind-sets in their families and communities.

Some of the key lessons emerging from experience to date include the following:

  • Need for gender mainstreaming: Until recently, the gender dimension was neglected in counterterrorism (CT)/CVE efforts. For example, the 2006 United Nations (UN) Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy did not specifically mention gender; it was only with a 2014 review resolution that the UN urged member states to consider women's participation in efforts to prevent and counter terrorism. The research finds that it is important to consult women and involve them in programme design and implementation, carry out gender-specific research to inform programming (e.g., are drivers of violent extremism different for men and women? Should the responses be different?), develop programmes specifically aimed at women, and ensure gender indicators in programme monitoring and evaluation.
  • No one-size-fits-all solution: Local context, drivers/factors of recruitment and radicalisation to violent extremism, and the situation of women can vary hugely from one country/area/community to another. Thus, programme design should be based on rigorous contextual analysis, including of gender dynamics, and tailored to be specific to that local community/population. However, when a successful programme is identified, even if complete duplication is not possible, it could be feasible to replicate elements of the programme in different contexts.
  • Promote gender equality: Empowering women is a key element of a long-term, sustainable deterrent against radicalisation to violent extremism and terrorism. Political, social, and economic empowerment of women raises their status within their families and communities. In particular, education for girls and young women should be promoted; education can be used in myriad ways to enhance resilience and reduce radicalisation to violent extremism.
  • Call for governments to develop clearer inter-agency communication and cooperation: Gendered empowerment, economic growth, education, and youth engagement should all be components in a coherent, whole-of-government P/CVE programming approach that incorporates all the relevant agencies.
  • Build the capacity of women and girls to contribute safely and productively to CVE efforts in a manner tailored to local contexts, and to ensure the security of women and girls involved in CVE.
  • Prioritise engagement with women and groups at the grassroots level to build on local practices and support local ownership.

As noted here, the women and P/CVE agenda could learn much from the WPS agenda from the UN Security Council (UNSCR) 1325. The latter refers to the important role women can play in the prevention and resolution of conflicts, peace-building, and post-conflict reconstruction. Many lessons from WPS programming could be relevant to women and CVE. However, the WPS agenda has largely developed in isolation from the P/CVE agenda. Challenges to integration of WPS and P/CVE include: limited opportunities for practitioners from each to exchange good practices and lessons learned; lack of funding for initiatives focused on women and girls in P/CVE; and lack of capacity among some women's groups. The literature makes a number of recommendations for integrating the CVE and WPS agendas and promoting the role of women in CVE, including:

  • Promote dialogue and participation of women and women's organisations in discussions about CVE policies and strategies, and seek their input in the design of CVE programmes. Without the inclusion of women, particularly from civil society and the security sector, CVE initiatives are likely to overlook many drivers of violent extremism - e.g., influences within families pushing young people to radicalisation or specific factors drawing women to violent extremism.
  • Evaluate lessons and draw on experience of women's involvement in prevention and resolution of conflicts and peace-building to identify effective approaches for promoting women in CVE and to identify synergies and areas for collaboration. Develop and update national action plans on WPS to ensure they integrate a P/CVE dimension.
  • Integrate a gender dimension in all CT and P/CVE work, including ensuring a gender dimension is incorporated into assessments, considering the impact of P/CVE programming on women and girls from design to implementation and evaluation.
  • In contexts where gender dynamics play an important role in recruitment and radicalisation to violent extremism, introduce CVE programmes specifically focused on women.
  • Monitor CVE programmes from a gender perspective, looking at the extent of women's participation and their roles in such initiatives, and the impact on women. Include specific gender benchmarks.

The review highlights the need for country-specific research on the role of women in P/CVE, specifically: a) the diverse roles of women in violent extremism (victims, mothers, recruiters, mobilisers, participants, etc.), and the impact of violent extremism on women; b) gender- specific drivers of violent extremism; c) gender analysis of existing P/CVE policies and programming - design, implementation, and impact; d) identification of options for gender mainstreaming in P/CVE programmes; and e) lesson learning from individual P/CVE programmes involving/targeting women. Such research will require support, e.g., for technical training of female researchers.

The report concludes with a discussion of policy guidance and networks from around the world.


GSDRC website, May 18 2017. Image credit: NATO Training Mission-Afghanistan