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Gender Biases in Preventing Violent Extremism Policies
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Lysistrata, a female military strategist persuaded women to deny their husbands and lovers sexual privileges, in an effort to negotiate a peace treaty to end the Peloponnesian War—with “Reconciliation” for a happy ending. Centuries ago, Aristophanes’ satire, shines light on the objectification of women by dismissing the atrocities women experience during wars and violent conflicts—where sexual and gender-based violence thrives. Our history of misunderstanding women’s role in violent contexts starts here –with this reductionist approach, leading to gender biases, stereotyping and incorrect assumptions for Countering/Preventing Violent Extremism (C/PVE) policies. Today, when we think about societal values, we want to move the world forward in a direction for an equitable outcome for all. Unfortunately, with the current (unconscious) gender biases, we are doing the opposite, paralleling the real world to Aristophanes’ satire.  

C/PVE policies are neither gender neutral nor gender inclusive and can have significant policy implications, including, insufficient development programs (particularly, for women’s needs), deferential treatment, and can create barriers for gender equality and women empowerment. Therefore, there is a need for gender mainstreaming. However, it requires a mindful process for meaningful gender integration by removing gender stereotypes that are counterproductive. While there have been unsuccessful attempts for improving C/PVE policies, it is not for a lack of information, as numerous scholars have contemplated “women’s role” in violent conflict, yet, there remains a paucity of translating these findings into policies. 

So, what’s causing it? Gender biases and stereotypes are deeply ingrained into policies that are largely based on male perspectives and experiences. Accepting that masculine perceptions undermine women’s right “to choose” or “make decisions” either as proponents of violent extremism or as champions of preventative measures, is crucial to remove barriers, in order to attain gender neutral policies. It has been argued that the complexities in understanding women’s role remains nuanced, as women have been facilitators, attackers, recruiters and supporters of violent extremist activities and contrastingly, women are victims or viewed as a solution in C/PVE. Should any reader decide to re-read the last sentence by replacing women with men, no one would be surprised, easily showcasing prejudice. 

Perhaps, another explanation is that the sample size of women associated with violent extremism is too small for any statistical relevance, representing outliers and accounting for the use of gender biases and stereotypes that mutually reinforce a misogynistic dynamic in C/PVE policies. As a result, it diminishes women’s active involvement either for or against violent extremism. For example, by only using a gender lens, it suggests that women are incapable of making a rational decision for committing to violent activities; or in the case for preventative measures, women are seen as an “untapped resource” and are pigeon-holed as “caregivers,” or as the “moral compass,” in their households, or communities, thereby, further restricting the role of women and maintaining a draconian sense of womanhood.

Reviewing C/PVE language and descriptions of women as an “untapped resource” is also derogatory. An “untapped resource” generally refers to “exploiting,” “not yet used” or “taking advantage of” –a thing! By commodifying women as things, in policy formulation, it sends the wrong messages. Context matters and words matter because it wields power, therefore (re)adjusting the way of thinking and (re)writing to include gender mainstreaming in a meaningful way, requires mindful thinking.  

It is critical to acknowledge that women are disproportionately disadvantaged, with inadequate access to socioeconomic and livelihood opportunities and in violent contexts, women’s voices become even more marginalized and their work undervalued, further increasing the risk of conflict related sexual violence. As women have borne more costs and reaped less benefits, it is imperative that we keep this in mind in C/PVE works and, therefore, questioning the premise of women as the solution. Soliciting women to be change agents for C/PVE programs, reinforces “men-centered approaches” by placing the burden of responsibility on mothers, wives, sisters, aunts, grandmothers, and any woman—loosely accessible in a man’s circle to deter his violent extremist actions. By putting the onus on women to prioritize the men in their lives and/or society; it contributes to abusing women’s goodwill and widening the gender inequality gap, before respecting women’s rights or their needs, ignoring associated risks to women’s security, and any potential backlash in already violent and volatile settings.

Examining the societal and ideological “push” and “pull” factors of drivers of violent extremism, reveals it is androgynous, suggesting that women and men join violent extremist groups for similar reasons. However, in 2014, ISIS rolled out a worldwide female recruitment drive, and women answered the call. Yet, to explain why women responded, the most propagated reason was simplistic ‘jihadi brides,’ failing to take into account, the intricacy and diversity of women’s active participation. This is problematic: first, if typecasting gender is used to inform policies and decision making then, this is a grave disservice, to C/PVE, and worst of all, to women. Secondly, it has serious policy ramifications. In 2015, as a reactionary response, United Nations Security Council Resolution 2242, recommended gender, as a crosscutting theme in counterterrorism and C/PVE, emphasizing gender-sensitive data and the need to find “drivers of radicalization for women,” –while the androgynous drivers succinctly provided the answers. What is most troubling, is that ISIS showed no differences in their recruitment strategy for women or men.

Paradoxically, gender mainstreaming stereotypes and expecting gender equality and gender empowerment programs to work and be as effective as they need to be, only undermines progress. By propagating gender stereotypes in C/PVE policies we are putting women at an additional disadvantage. Combining multiple agendas (women, peace and security,women empowerment, gender equality, etc) like a patchwork, undermines the progress it intends to promote and fails in delivering results, often weakening the effectiveness of each agenda.

Yet, the issue largely remains, and therefore, we must not accept the status quo that promotes gender stereotypes and inflames gender inequalities, we must urgently correct them. Debunking gender biases and stereotypes that perpetuate masculine viewpoints, highlights that these typecasts deter our own abilities in finding sustainable solutions by misguiding and distracting our focus from grievances and dividing lines. By acknowledging that we need: gender neutral policies, we can change the current derogatory language and accept that “push” “pull” factors are indeed androgenous, which would be vital to the process of establishing clear, concise and consistent C/PVE policies. It would allow us to better advocate for reducing gender inequality, removing barriers to women’s access to economic prosperity and enabling girls and women to realize their rights, determine their life outcomes, influence decision-making and become change agents, first, for themselves and then, perhaps, in their households, communities, and societies.

If we are to be the makers of modern C/PVE policies, we cannot let old ways dictate the process. And it should be here, our ill-informed perceptions of women’s role in violent contexts ends.

Gazbiah Sans is an expert in Counter-Terrorism (CT) and Preventing/Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE), working in fragile and conflict contexts for 15 years, notably with USAID in Cameroon on the Boko Haram affected Lake Chad Basin Region and with the World Bank in Afghanistan.

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