The presence of violent extremist groups has become an increasingly pressing issue around the globe, and although there is a growing number of women involved in these groups, there is a lack of research and resources dedicated to women in deradicalization efforts and countering violent extremism (CVE). Programs to rehabilitate participants in violent extremist groups and preemptive efforts to thwart involvement are designed by men, for men. As women are joining radical groups at an unprecedented rate, and even returning to these groups after rehabilitation, this calls for immediate attention and action.
The Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security (GIWPS) published a policy brief earlier this year that outlines findings about women in deradicalization and rehabilitation. Recent studies have found that 20% of Western recruits to the Islamic State (IS) are women, and female suicide bombers for Boko Haram have increased substantially. Further, the EU Terrorism Situation and Trend Report found that the number of women arrested for violent extremist participation rose to 25% in 2016, a 7% increase from the prior year.
A major roadblock for deradicalization efforts is the misconception about why women join terrorist groups. Although horrific stories of girls and women being kidnapped and forced into extremist groups, or women being coerced by husbands to join are very real, research has proven that women join these groups for a variety of complex reasons. Just like men, women may join radical groups due to family ties, economic or social opportunity, or religious ideology, amongst other reasons. Despite research to support this, the narrative of women being victims of coercion persists “While men’s agency is assumed”, according to GIWPS, “women are infantilized or sexualized.” Consequently, “This can lead to more lenient sentencing, inadequate rehabilitation programming, and perhaps even let dangerous actors slip through the cracks.”
In spite of challenges, there have been some efforts to create deradicalization programs that include women. Last year, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Nigeria and the Center for Democracy and Development brought together women in Maiduguri, Nigeria to share ideas about countering radical ideology in their community. In an area where Boko Haram has terrorized civilians for the last decade, this workshop aimed to empower women to create lasting solutions. One of the participants of the workshop, Mariam Ngileruma, expressed the importance of education. “What if the women were educated, and then allowed to educate their own children?” Ngileruma asked.
“Socialization starts at home and when you educate women, you educate the whole.”
Along with education, job training is essential for women to be rehabilitated. GIWPS reported that employment opportunities for women after serving prison sentences are three times worse than their male counterparts, mainly because job training programs are inadequate, ineffective, or even nonexistent for women. Because some women join extremist groups due to lack of economic opportunity or access to social services, if they are not given better opportunities after incarceration or rehabilitation, they are more likely to return to their radical groups.
Above all, bringing women to the forefront of deradicalization efforts will be the most effective solution to counteracting female involvement in violent extremism and ensuring proper rehabilitation. According to GIWPS, “Identifying, empowering, and consulting credible women leaders is a crucial part of creating sustainable deradicalization and rehabilitation programs that address individual and community needs.” This can be accomplished in a variety of ways—through empowering mothers to educate their children, supporting women in religious and political positions, and encouraging women to engage in a dialogue with their community. The participation of women in violent extremism is not something that we can let slip through the cracks. As these women face unique challenges in the process of deradicalization and rehabilitation, we need to support and encourage solutions made by women, for women.