The relationship between policies around preventing and countering violent extremism (P/CVE) and women, peace, and security (WPS) has been a complicated one. In particular, WPS practitioners and policymakers have real concerns about the ways in which P/CVE policies could harm women.
With these risks and challenges in mind, I suggest three ways to improve how WPS is incorporated into P/CVE policies and programs. The first is a view of women that sees them as independent political actors (regardless of their relationship to men and boys). The second is a more fluid understanding of agency and victimhood in contexts of violent extremism. The last is the use of data and transparency in policy design and implementation.
Women as Independent Political Actors
A main area of discomfort for WPS practitioners with P/CVE policies and programs is that women are seen as important to P/CVE only because of their relationship with men and boys. The international community has treated women as pawns in P/CVE policies and instrumentalized them so that they are only seen as useful to preventing radicalization and recruitment of men and boys in their lives. It is hard to find a reference to women in P/CVE programs that does not emphasize their roles as wives or mothers. Yet it is not as common to find reference to the role of men as husbands and fathers in P/CVE programs, despite the fact that men’s relational roles are also important to their engagement in violence.
The problem with only focusing on women’s roles in relation to men is not that it is never the case that women can be useful in influencing male family members in their life, but that women are seen as important only through their relationships with men and boys. A similar argument can be made about the ways in which women in violent extremist organizations (VEOs) are labeled as, “ISIS wives” or “ISIS sex slaves,” when it is rare to see any mention to the marital status of men and boys. While some women who are labeled “ISIS wives” have been forcibly married into the group, others fulfill key roles in addition to be being married to another group member.
Seeing women as only important for P/CVE policies based on their relationship to men and boys denies women’s roles as key political actors. Women can be important to implementing P/CVE policies based on their leadership in communities, their activism in civil society organizations, as voters, and/or as police officers. Additionally, women play essential roles in VEOs, as supporters of VEOs, and more generally in inciting violence in conflict. The goal is not to securitize women, given the data that they also play roles in VEOs, but to see women as political actors regardless of their relationship to men and boys. By seeing women as private actors whose value matters only in the home, policymakers are echoing beliefs around women and femininity promoted by many VEOs.
There is a risk of turning the WPS agenda into a remake of “women-in-war-are-mainly-silent-victims” narrative. According to Cynthia Enloe, this is a form of militarization that sees women as “only of interest to influential people if they can be categorized as victims of violence.” The P/CVE community has made a modern version of this narrative in which women are only relevant to P/CVE when they are victims of violence or preventing men and boys from carrying out violence. As summarized in the recent report from the Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, “there is a distinctly patriarchal element to making women the gatekeepers to the men and boys in their communities.” The WPS community is all too familiar with the tendency to simplify women’s roles in conflict environments into categorizations like “mothers,” “monsters,” or “whores.”
Blurring Categories of Victim and Perpetrator
The limited view of women in P/CVE programs demonstrates the need to see women as political actors who can be victims and perpetrators of violent extremism or even both at the same time. A second issue with linking WPS and P/CVE is the narrow understanding of agency, guilt, and victimhood that harms men, women, boys, and girls. The international community focuses on the ways in which women are victimized by extremist groups, for example the gross abuses of Yazidi women by ISIS, but does not focus on the ways in which men and boys are also victims of violence by VEOs. For example, the UN Security Council Working Group on Children and Armed Conflict publishes accounts of a variety of harm against boys and young men by VEOs.
As part of creating a more inclusive WPS agenda that recognizes the importance of a gender lens (not just an “add women and stir” approach), P/CVE policies would be stronger if they focused on the harsh reality of life for men and boys as part of VEOs or under the rule of VEOs. Despite the tendency to see gender as only meaning women, demonstrating the ways in which men and masculinity are harmed by VEOs not only creates a better gender analysis, but also more effective policies to prevent extremism. VEOs are effective recruiters because of their use of ideas around masculinity to encourage men to join the group, promising them stature, sex, marriage, money, and weapons (all themes closely tied to masculine power).
P/CVE policies must also consider the reasons women align with VEOs and what P/CVE programs should be doing to understand and address the motivations of women and girls. If VEOs can understand the nuance and power around gender identities, the P/CVE and WPS communities can also together adopt this level of analysis.
Data and Best Practices
And finally, a third obstacle to creating an effective relationship between P/CVE and WPS is the lack of data and best practices. The need for gender-sensitive research and data collection has been recognized by the UN Security Council in resolution 2242. Monitoring and evaluation has been a challenge for the WPS community and the P/CVE community as identified in detail in a recent report from the UN Human Rights Council on the impact of policies and practices aimed at P/CVE . Some of the strongest research from the UN community on P/CVE recognizes the need to include a gender lens in their data, but describes challenges in accessing female respondents. While there are challenges in conducting research on VEOs in general, female respondents are often left out of research because their contributions to VEOs may be less visible than their male counterparts, because they don’t identify as members of a VEO in the same way as men, or finally because the researchers are male and may not be permitted to interview women. Each of these boundaries can be overcome, yet there is a steep learning curve to changing practices. Creating effective policies that align P/CVE and WPS presents a legitimate challenge for the international community because of the lack of guidance and best practices for how to successful link these two areas.
While the three barriers identified represent challenges for both the WPS and CVE communities, they are not insurmountable and overcoming them will lead to improved policies and programs for both fields. A first step will be to complicate narratives around gender and P/CVE so that women are not only seen as important in their roles as victims or links to men and boys. Equally, men and boys cannot be viewed only as potential violent actors. And finally, if both the WPS and P/CVE communities want to create better policies and programs, they need to share data and best practices. In the twenty years since UN Security Council resolution 1325, there have been new challenges, narratives, and actors that require the innovative thinking and analysis expressed in the founding of the WPS agenda. Just as the challenges in the WPS space will continue to adapt, so must the tools and analyses used to address them.
Phoebe Donnelly is a non-resident research fellow at the International Peace Institute (IPI) helping to lead the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) program.