It starts at home: how mothers can help in the fight against terrorism

Women trained in anti-extremism could help to prevent radical ideologies from taking root.

‘We have had enough of Boko Haram.’ This was the message from Nigerian women who marched peacefully in a number of cities last week to protest against the latest killings by the radical Islamist group.

Women marching in Lagos on the eve of International Women’s Day, 8 March, were mourning the deaths of the more than 50 school children who were killed in Yobe State on 24 February, and the 11 February abduction of girls from Borno State. ‘Nigerian women mourn. Stop the killing of our children,’ read some of the placards carried by the women dressed in black, according to reports in the local media.

As Women's Month is celebrated around the world and protests such as these continue, attention is shifted to the role that women can play in addressing the violent extremism that affects so many African countries. What makes young people turn to such acts of violence? Researchers are realising that clues to this question may be found in the home.

For a long time, counter-terrorism has been seen as an exclusively male domain in terms of combatting terror and assisting victims, who are often women and children. Studies are now showing that women, and mothers specifically, can be central to detecting and eventually preventing radicalisation.

Mothers are trained in anti-extremism and taught to detect behavioural changes in their children

In a recent policy brief, the Global Center on Cooperative Security welcomed the latest United Nations (UN) Resolutions on women, peace and security. It also noted, however, that too little attention is being paid to the role of women in terrorism and violent extremism. Women are, of course, not only victims, but can also be sympathisers or supporters of radical ideologies – and even perpetrators of terror acts.

It was asked, for example, whether the marginalisation of women and the limits placed on girls’ education could not, in some cases, also lead to radicalisation. The study states that ‘the multiple roles played by women in terrorism and counter-terrorism call for a more nuanced approach to integrating a gender perspective in addressing armed conflict and terrorism issues.’

Theorising about women's role in countering violent extremism is one thing, but how can this be put into practice? Some NGOs, such as Austrian-based Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE), are working with groups of mothers in various countries to counter radicalisation in the home.

Mothers are trained in anti-extremism and taught how to detect behavioural changes in their children. The aim of the organisation is to help these mothers ‘become agents of a more peaceful culture.’ Highlighting the role that women could play gives the fight against extremism a human face, and civil society organisations can certainly offer significant support to women in this regard.

While these workshops have been focusing on extremism in countries like India and Pakistan, similar strategies could be used closer to home. Radicalisation and extremism have led to the formation of armed groups in several African countries, such as al-Shabaab in Somalia, Boko Haram in Nigeria and Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in the Sahel. These groups recruit from across the continent.

In 2013, the French military intervention in northern Mali and the subsequent media focus on radical Islamic movements in the Sahel revealed the extent of recruitment of such groups. Members from Senegal, Guinea, Mauritania, Nigeria and further afield were detected in organisations such as AQIM, the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO) and the National Movement for the Liberation of Azawad (MNLA).

What complicates this issue is that counter-terrorism efforts predominately take place in very conservative societies. More often than not the father figure, or the absence of one, dominates the lives of young, would-be terrorists. This means that prevention and detection strategies won’t work if they are based exclusively on women, who can easily be shunned if they are seen as a threat to the status quo.

A truly gendered approach – one that considers the roles of both men and women – needs to be based on a holistic view of the problem. Detecting and mitigating violent extremism should ideally be a team effort: if both parents reject radical ideologies, there is a far greater chance of success.

Highlighting the role that women could play gives the fight against extremism a human face

It should be kept in mind that while mothers would want to protect their sons from radicalisation, it is unrealistic to expect them to denounce their children to the authorities. Forging a relationship of trust between mothers and government institutions would therefore be hugely important for the success of any early warning and anti-extremism programmes.

While African governments mainly respond to terrorism by focusing on the identification, arrest or elimination of perpetrators, there is an increasing willingness to look at ‘softer’ approaches that explore preventive strategies. In east Africa, specifically in Kenya and to a lesser extent in Somalia, several such projects have been launched. Police and investigators are increasingly looking at how radical ideologies can be prevented from taking root in the first place.

Again, a holistic view must be taken of a complex and multi-faceted problem. Stereotypes and anecdotal evidence often drive policy decisions, and the root causes of terrorism are frequently presented as stemming from poor socio-economic circumstances. Strategies to combat violent extremism therefore focus almost exclusively on socio-economic development. While poverty may create a fertile breeding ground for recruiting radical sympathisers, political frustration, as well as ethnic and religious marginalisation or exclusion, can also be seen to contribute. In addition to these broad themes, it is important to recognise the numerous personal motivations that finally push an individual to join an extremist group.

While women have an important role in the family, governments should also encourage their participation in the police and in special anti-terrorist units. Women often notice smaller details and may be more intuitive. As in many other instances of women's participation in the security sector, this would bring a positive dimension to the counter-terrorism efforts.

At this stage, only a very small percentage of women are involved in special units in Africa. The Global Center on Cooperative Security policy brief states that only 4% of those involved in peacekeeping worldwide are women, with women making up only 10% of police and 3% of military personnel, according to 2011 figures.

These numbers are far too low to make a real impact. Clearly, more women in security structures and a greater focus on women’s role in counter-terrorism could help to end to the senseless killings by extremist groups in Africa and elsewhere.

Anneli Botha, Senior Researcher, Transnational Threats and International Crime Division, ISS Pretoria, and Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant

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