Under the Mitchell Group (TMG)’s Evaluation and Analytical Services (EAS) Project, TMG undertook an analysis of the role of gender in countering violent extremism (CVE). In late 2016, the TMG team led by Professor. Susan Merrill, Senior Research Specialist, and Lauren Eason, Senior Research Coordinator of the WomenStats Project, conducted a desk study of existing literature to answer key questions regarding the women in violent extremist organizations (VEOs) in West Africa with a focus on Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Chad, Mali, Nigeria, and Niger. The study will inform further field studies and future development programming to accurately address the situation facing women.
Literature often portrays woman as victims of violent extremism across the globe. The international news describe the harsh reality of kidnappings and sexual assaults that affect African women in conflict zones. However, while these realities exist, it is important to realize that women are often willing to join and become active participants in VE groups due to the numerous gendered grievances of these environments. By addressing the factors that face women and not only the VEOs themselves, development organizations can mobilize an essential population and inhibit the spread of violent extremism across West Africa.
In many countries, laws are instituted to promote gender equality yet they are rarely enforced. Domestic abuse occurs frequently, and the husband is often left unpunished. Women are often socially excluded from the work force and from owning property giving them less opportunity to establish independence. In Chad, for example, a reliance on traditional law leads to a harsh quality of life. Girls are married at 14 years old and the punishment for rape is a monetary compensation to the women’s family rather than prosecution. In neighboring Cameroon, if a husband dies, the widow and her children are often ostracized from society if the brother decides not to adopt her family.
Extremist organizations offer women relief from the system, a chance to establish a better life, independence and a sense of authority. Woman may seek the gender equality missing in their own societies by joining these groups and fighting for the same cause as men. Sometimes women can be coaxed into joining. For example, when Boko Haram captured the town of Baga, members would offer hospital care and food to sick women and children to entice recruitment. In Burkina Faso, extremist groups from Saudi Arabia are offering financial incentives to women and schooling for their children to recruit women into the group.
Upon joining, women become a central support system and active recruiters for the VEOs, in charge of raising and caring for the next generation of fighters and instilling the religious and political ideology of the group. In Uganda, women were used to care for the wounded, load trucks, and smuggle drugs or weapons, and gather intelligence on enemies. Increasingly, women are involved in suicide bombings due to their ability to access difficult areas, hide explosive material, and willingness to become martyrs for the cause.
In recent years, organizations attempted to offset these pressures that face women. Community organizations and networks such as Women Living Under Muslim Laws (WLUML) seek to address these societal factors. They work with local governments to assist woman with education and employment opportunities that are culturally and economically viable within their communities. Women-to-women networks have proven effective in creating a communal support system and mitigating VE recruitment.
The home is where extremism manifests. By empowering women, development organizations can reduce the spread and weaken VEOs to create a more peaceful West Africa. The home can become a stronghold to steer future generations away from radicalism towards prosperity.
The report was presented at the African Studies Association Meeting in late 2016. The final report is currently under review. Please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for further information.