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Blog: Trivialising misogyny in terrorism is dangerous but tackling gender assumptions can prevent violent extremism 

5 December 2020
By: Anna Sherburn, Deputy Head of the Commonwealth’s Countering Violent Extremism Unit

This blog is part of the Commonwealth’s ‘16 Days of Actions’ series, designed to showcase multi-disciplinary national solutions in addressing violence against women and girls. These proven solutions build on the collective experience of the 54 member countries – representing one-third of humanity – which can be replicated elsewhere to create a safer world for every woman and girl. Read the full series here.

Although often overlooked, there is a stark gender dynamic to terrorism and violent extremism. In 2018, Commonwealth Heads of Government encouraged the active involvement of women in finding solutions to violent extremism. They further expressed their continued support of the United Nations Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism, which emphasises the importance of gender-sensitive strategies to prevent the spread of violent extremism.

In this post, we call on all Commonwealth member countries to recognise terrorism as an issue that profoundly affects women and girls, and build gender-analysis into all aspects of the work on countering violent extremism.

Misogyny in terrorism

In 2019, the global economic impact of terrorism was estimated around $26.4 billion and in 2020, about 13,826 deaths were caused by violent extremist groups. Most people assume terrorist violence is indiscriminate, with the victims attacked at random. But ignoring or trivialising the role of misogyny in driving terrorism is dangerous. 

Misogyny is deeply entrenched in the ideologies of most terrorist groups from Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin to the white supremacist networks operating across Europe, North America and Oceania, and the rising ‘InCel’ ideology - which is the subject of a pending terrorism charge in Canada.  

Targeted terrorist attacks on the rights of women and girls are common. Women of all ages have been targets of extremist violence and terrorist acts including the use of sexual violence and slavery, kidnapping and targeted killings to undermine their essential freedoms and rights.

Terrorist attacks that target women and girls cause ripples that curtail the freedoms of women not directly affected by the attacks. From economic shocks and loss of income to reduced education opportunities and limited life choices because they, their family or community limit women’s autonomy and freedoms to ‘protect’ them from danger.  

Rethinking gender expectations

To prevent violent extremism, we need to understand how the ascribed roles of men and women and masculine and feminine identities contribute to and can help mitigate violent extremism, and help men and women develop positive identities. When we incorporate a strong gender-focus into countering violent extremism (CVE), the impacts can be significant. 

Since 2018, the Commonwealth Secretariat has worked with the government and civil society organisations from every region of Cameroon to better understand how gender issues affect violent extremism in the country. As a result, Cameroonian members of the Commonwealth Women in CVE Network have gone on to apply their expertise in promising initiatives designed to prevent extremism in their country.

One network member is working to reintegrate women who have been involved with violent extremism in the Far-North region of Cameroon through her ‘Maman and Babies out of the Bushes’ initiative. Some others are working to provide skills training and psychosocial support to male violent extremist prisoners through the ‘Prison-peneurs’ programme run by a youth-led non-profit ‘Local Youth Corner Cameroon’. A few members have worked with the Secretariat and the International Institute of Justice to train counter-terrorism police on gender-sensitive methods for conducting terrorism investigations, including witness interviews.

Preventing violent extremism

Too often, the domain of counter-terrorism is a world of men. It has been over 20 years since the United Nations Security Council adopted resolution 1325 on women and peace and security. The long-term success of our peacebuilding and CVE efforts requires us to work faster and harder to include women at every stage and in every institution through a whole-of-society approach to preventing violent extremism.

This is an urgent and vital priority, but some progress is being made. The Secretariat has seen more women officers and officials benefiting from its CVE programmes for the prisons, policing and intelligence agencies across the Commonwealth, particularly through its project on ‘Community Policing to Prevent Violent Extremism’ for the Tanzanian Police Service.

We need to leverage this progress and ensure we continue to include women in the traditionally male-dominated security fields. We must keep working towards creating more space for women peacebuilding and civil society organisations to build a more peaceful, secure and prosperous future, which benefits everyone.

The ‘16 Days of Actions’ blog series is part of the Commonwealth Says NO MORE campaign. Read the full series here, learn more about the Commonwealth’s work on ending violence against women and girls here – and join in the conversation on social media by using #CommonwealthSaysNOMORE.

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