Can women and youth make a difference in the prevention of violent extremism?
June 29, 2016
Understanding the structural causes of violence and learning how violence mutates is a key factor to preventing and mitigating violent extremism. As defined by USAID, violent extremism involves: “advocating, engaging in, preparing, or otherwise supporting ideologically motivated or justified violence to further social, economic or political objectives.” These acts threaten the life of millions of people and have caused countless damage and suffering in the most fragile contexts around the world, as well as in developed nations.
According to the UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action on Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE), societies with lower gender equality indicators are more vulnerable to violent extremism. Therefore, women’s empowerment must be included as one of the strategies to mitigate and prevent these acts of extreme violence. In the discussion “The Power of Gender in Preventing Violent Extremism,” which was organized by the Geneva Centre for Security Policy and the Australian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in Geneva, panelists argued that women are vital agents of change who have the power to influence vulnerable groups in their communities. Australia’s Ambassador for Women and Girls, Natasha Stott Despoja, indicated, “women influence and shape the coping skills of young people and in doing so they actually shape the community’s resilience to violent extremism.”
Maud Roure, Head of Learning and Policy of Interpeace, provided her insights based on the organizations experience in over 20 fragile contexts and therefore focused on operational considerations on how this strategy should be put into practice: “this approach needs to be highly context-specific, the role that women can play in preventing violent extremism will vary depending on a number of factors, such as the level of acceptance of violence in their society, societal norms, women’s status in their society, their literacy rates, etc. Our approach needs to adapt to these realities. From our work we see that for instance in Ivory Coast and in Mali, women play a crucial role in the education of the children and they are recognized as such by the wider community. Whereas in Libya, especially since the revolution, the society has become more conservative, and women’s opinions are often despised by men, so their role in influencing the young generation is different, therefore our approach needs to be different.”
In this regard, Ms. Roure expressed how in nations like Mali and Ivory Coast, the PVE strategy would need to focus on strengthening the ability of mothers promoting counter narratives to violence, while in places like Libya, the focus must be set on changing the perceptions that men have towards women, which would then transform societal norms in the country. She also expressed how external actors must understand – as a starting point for their intervention – the capacities and strategies that are already practiced by women in the face of violent extremism. Otherwise international PVE initiatives risk undermining those existing efforts.
During the 2016 edition of the European Development Days, which took place in Brussels, Interpeace, World Vision Brussels and Search for Common Ground, organized a discussion entitled “Promoting Young People as Peacebuilders”. It was argued that education and direct access to youth are also pertinent in the prevention of violent extremism. Radical ideologies in different parts of the world have the power to manipulate vulnerable youth “by appealing to their desire for dignity.” Research has shown that extremist groups are growing in number, because they have the capacity to capture the minds and hearts of young people who have suffered from marginalization and disengagement and are therefore exposed to becoming part of radicalization. Understanding the causes of radicalization requires an in-depth analysis of the political, social and religious dynamics of diverse countries, and more so, true engagement with the youth of a specific context.
In Ivory Coast, Interpeace and its partner organization Indigo Côte d’Ivoire are working with youth and actively recognizing their voices as a crucial part of PVE. Séverin Yao Kouamé, Coordinator of Indigo Côte d’Ivoire, was one of the panelists at the EDD16 event. He described how young people need recognition from society, and a space to express what they feel in order to build trust in a sustainable way. He added, “The first job we did in this community was with the young people. Actually, it was about getting them involved in a process of reflection which allowed them to draw a map of the violence among young people […]. (This) allowed us to know who the right agents of transformation were, based on the understanding that young people had of their own dynamics.” Engaging youth and building strategies from their perspective and initiative will be more effective in the process of mitigating violent extremism.
Both women and youth can be vulnerable in fragile contexts, but they can also be powerful agents of change who make the difference in the most difficult circumstances. Peacebuilders and policy makers must therefore work closely with these local actors and truly understand the local context and specific societal dynamics, in order to create more sustainable approaches for the prevention of violent extremism in a comprehensive way.
For further information:
Watch the discussion on the power of gender in preventing violent extremism in the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.
Read synopsis on the debate about how youth can help prevent violent extremism in the European Development Days.