Australia needs to do more to support women’s participation in efforts to counter violent extremism
11 Feb 2019|

On the first anniversary of the Chibok girls’ kidnapping, Nigerian activist Hamsatu Allamin told the UN Security Council that efforts to prevent violent extremism will not succeed without women’s participation. She said women in northeast Nigeria were negotiating with armed groups, running community deradicalisation programs and providing front-line services to those rescued, but were denied access to discussions on how to counter the insurgents at the national and international levels. Meanwhile, Afghan women have been shut out of talks with the Taliban, and women activists in Iraq, Libya, Mali, Somalia and Syria experience similar challenges.

A central pillar of the women, peace and security (WPS) agenda is promoting women’s participation across all peace and security decision-making processes. Preventing and countering violent extremism (CVE) just as importantly requires the meaningful and safe participation of women and women’s civil society organisations. Any policy deliberations also need to be informed by comprehensive local gender analyses.

Ahead of the 15th anniversary of the WPS agenda and the adoption of UN Security Council resolution 1325, the NGO Working Group on Women, Peace and Security, which I led at the time, developed a position on CVE. It was well known that the Security Council was about to adopt an eighth resolution on WPS that would almost certainly include references to CVE. We felt it was important that the text of the resolution take into account the experiences of women living in areas directly affected by violent extremism. UN experts working on counterterrorism and CVE also told us that the absence of a mandate requiring their agencies to consider gender made it extremely difficult to integrate a gender perspective into their analyses.

We deliberately tailored our calls on CVE to fit within the broader framework of conflict prevention. Efforts to counter violent extremism and radicalisation must be centred on the promotion of women’s rights, human rights and gender equality and address its root causes—such as poor or exclusive governance structures, the absence of the rule of law, discrimination, inequality and poverty.

Australia’s second national action plan on WPS is expected to be released by the middle of this year and include CVE elements. As suggested in Security Council resolution 2242, Australia is already conducting research on the gendered dimensions of violent extremism in the Indo-Pacific region and our military is providing WPS training in Afghanistan, Iraq and the Philippines as part of collaborative CVE efforts. However, as a strong supporter of the WPS agenda, Australia must go further in supporting women’s participation across all CVE decision-making processes and commit to a human rights approach to CVE in consultation with local women’s organisations.

Australia’s support for local women’s organisations should enable them to prioritise their own strategic objectives based on their own assessments of local peace and security needs. It should also provide a platform for them to share experiences and effective strategies regionally. Funding from Australia should be flexible and predictable so that the organisations can work on long-term projects which address traditional harmful gender norms and promote gender equality.

Australia should also ensure that its counterterrorism and financing policies don’t block the work of women’s organisations working on deradicalisation or on broader peacebuilding projects. Internationally, Australia has role in funding dedicated gender experts in the UN and other multilateral entities that work on CVE and in holding those entities to account when such posts are vacant or deprioritised.

Importantly, it’s not enough for the upcoming national action plan to incorporate such measures if they’re not aligned with Australia’s overarching strategies on countering terrorism and violent extremism. Both Australia’s June 2018 statement at the UN High-Level Conference on Counter-Terrorism and its 2017 national counterterrorism plan are completely silent on the role women should play or how their participation will be ensured. In fact, the words ‘women’ and ‘gender’ do not appear in either document.

Our 2015 decision to develop a CVE policy wasn’t taken lightly and we did get some criticism at the time from some of our international peers. CVE is an area in which the WPS community continues to have diverging views. Among the genuine concerns is that women’s participation will be measured through the quality of the intelligence they bring instead of their equal right to be part of these processes. There are also fears that shifting funding preferences might favour CVE activities over peacebuilding work centred on promoting gender equality and human rights.

Despite these risks, it’s important that gender perspectives and analysis inform CVE and counterterrorism policies. It’s equally essential that women’s civil society organisations are included in these policy discussions to ensure that the promotion of women’s rights and the holistic implementation of the WPS agenda are central and that there’s pushback if they’re being compromised or undermined.