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Helpdesk Report: K4D - Preventing/countering violent extremism programming on men, women, boys and girls

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How has P/CVE programming engaged men, women, girls and boys differently and what has worked and what were the challenges in gender-responsiveness?


Gender and age can have a big influence on people’s roles in relation to violent extremism: if they are vulnerable to recruitment, if they join violent extremist groups, the driving factors, what
their participation in violent extremism entails, and – critically – what approaches should be taken to preventing or countering violent extremism (P/CVE). Hence, it is important not to take a one-size-fits-all approach in P/CVE programming, but rather to differentiate between men, women, boys and girls.

P/CVE and women

Violent extremism is ‘highly gendered’; there are strong links between gender inequality and violent extremism. Men and women can have very different reasons for joining/supporting extremist groups, based on their gendered roles; they can participate in different ways, and be impacted by violent extremism in different ways.

The literature stresses the importance of taking a gendered approach in P/CVE programming. Women’s participation can bring different perceptions and experiences, and ensure increased effectiveness and broader reach of P/CVE strategies. Gender equality is a powerful tool in P/CVE, though it is important not to instrumentalise this, as in the long run, this could undermine women’s rights. In recent years there has been a significant shift towards adopting a gender perspective in P/CVE frameworks and strategies.

There are lots of gender stereotypes about women in relation to violent extremism: they tend to be viewed either as victims (particularly of sexual violence) or as potentially able to stop it through their position as mothers, sisters, etc. Far less focus is given to their potential role as perpetrators of violent extremism. The reality is that many women have been drawn of their own free will to join violent extremist groups, and have played multiple roles within such groups.

Such stereotypes have led to P/CVE programming largely involving and targeting men. Women’s involvement in decision-making is secondary at best, and in terms of role in P/CVE, the focus is on women within their family circles being able to promote tolerance and detect radicalisation. Some writers question whether women can be that influential, given the high levels of gender inequality many faces. Others challenge the notion that women cannot have wider influence.

Examples of wider roles for women in P/CVE include: providing vital information to security actors; providing input to make P/CVE strategies and programmes more effective; joining the security services themselves and working on law enforcement and P/CVE; and having a role in policy-making.

This review found examples of diverse interventions in relation to women and P/CVE. Examples are: economic, political and social empowerment of women in Morocco and promotion of female religious preachers; the Mothers School initiative which gives women skills and knowledge to counter extremist narratives; and the ‘Let’s live in peace!’ project in Pakistan which supports both economic empowerment of women, and knowledge/capacity development to recognise and tackle radicalisation.

Recommendations for P/CVE programming and women fall into three broad themes: conduct more research and gendered analysis; involve women and women’s organisations in all aspects of programming, and mainstream gender into all P/CVE work, whilst promoting gender equality in its own right.

P/CVE and men

Gender is not the same as women. However, there is a tendency to equate gender with women and overlook men and male youth. One consequence of this is a lack of focus and research on men, male youth and masculinity in the context of violent extremism. Gender roles, and patriarchal notions of masculinity, in particular, can fuel conflict and insecurity, and be a driver of violent extremism.

Violent extremist organisations use notions of masculinity to appeal to men and male youth. ISIS, for example, uses hypermasculine images to portray its fighters and uses a combination of masculinity and humiliation to secure male recruits. Women can reinforce gender perceptions and expectations, persuading or goading male relatives to join violent extremist groups.

The inadequacies men and male youth feel in their lives can also be a driving factor in them turning to violent extremism. When males find it difficult to achieve social status and adulthood through the traditional routes (employment and marriage) they can seek alternative ways, including violent extremism.

Finally, gendered perceptions of men can make them targets of counter-terrorism and hard-line security measures by governments and security services, which can be counterproductive.

Key recommendations include the need to understand the gendered push and pull factors behind violent extremism, and not make assumptions about men’s roles; greater research and focus on notions of masculinity in the context of violent extremism; and promotion of ‘positive’ notions of masculinity (not based on violence).

P/CVE and youth

The majority of people who become violent extremists are youth but only a tiny proportion of youth populations end up in violent extremist groups. The factors driving youth involvement in violent extremism are complex, diverse and often mutually reinforcing. Common ‘push’ factors include marginalisation and exclusion; a sense of injustice; lack of access to education and employment opportunities; lack of future prospects and sense of social and personal worth and purpose; and disruptive social context and experiences of violence. Common ‘pull’ factors are ideologies answering grievances and offering new forms of identity; sense of purpose; camaraderie and friendship; material incentives; empowerment and adventure.

Despite the central role of youth in violent extremism, there is little understanding of what it is like to be a youth and how to engage effectively with those vulnerable to recruitment. In the context of violent extremism and P/CVE, youth tend to be perceived either as perpetrators, or as victims who are forced to join violent extremist groups. This limited narrative fails to capture the fact that young people can be and are part of the solution. Government responses to violent extremism (VE), often hard-line security approaches, are counterproductive. To be effective P/CVE programming must have youth participation.

Approaches to engaging and targeting youth in P/CVE efforts fall into four broad categories, with diverse interventions under each:

  • Preventing violence and recruitment into violent extremist groups;
  • Facilitating young people’s disengagement from violent extremist groups;
  • Producing and amplifying new narratives;
  • Fostering effective and meaningful partnerships.

This review found a range of interventions focused on youth and P/CVE. Examples include: Pakistan’s Peace Rickshaws campaign which puts messages of peace on rickshaws to counter extremist narratives; Youth-Waging Peace, a youth-led guide to PVE through education which offers perspectives on violent extremism from the lived experiences of young people across different backgrounds; the ‘Drop the Gun, Pick Up the Pen’ initiative by the Elman Peace and Human Rights Centre in Somalia, which aims at the disarmament, rehabilitation and reintegration of young women and men who had been co-opted into clan-based militias by warlords; and Youth Against Terrorism in Tunisia, which seeks to reduce the influence of violence, extremist radicalisation and terrorism in Tunisian society.

However, systematic data and evidence on youth-inclusive/youth-focused PVE programming and the positive role of young people in PVE are rare. The literature clearly stresses the importance of youth participation in all aspects of P/CVE programming. Key recommendations are: carry out thorough analysis on violent extremism in each localised context, who’s involved/vulnerable, driving factors, and determine interventions accordingly; involve youth in data collection and analysis, and design and implementation of programmes; promote multi-stakeholder partnerships with youth at the forefront; engage in advocacy and awareness-raising on the positive role and needs of young people for PVE; promote young women’s empowerment and gender-sensitive youth and PVE approaches; and try to reach ‘unreachable’ youth.

This review drew on a mixture of academic and grey literature. Gender issues were addressed in much of the literature.