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Afghan rights activists attend a rally as they shout slogans incidents of violence against women in Afghanistan Monday, 23 February 2015. Haroon Sabawoon / Anadolu Agency
Briefing 5 / Gender and Conflict

A Course Correction for the Women, Peace and Security Agenda

In October, the Women, Peace and Security principles enumerated in UN Security Council Resolution 1325 turned twenty. But the aims remain largely unachieved. Governments and the UN should stop using this agenda for counter-terrorism work and listen better to what women activists say they need.

What’s new? The year 2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS). The resolution’s principles remain vital, but progress advancing them has been scant. One problem is the integration of WPS work with the complement to counter-terrorism known as “countering violent extremism”.

Why does it matter? On the ground, many women activists feel that their activism has become tangled up in – or even subordinated to – states’ efforts to combat Islamist militancy. Fair or unfair, the association has made their work on women’s empowerment more difficult and sometimes exposed them to physical danger.

What should be done? The UN, donors and states should stop instrumentalising WPS principles in counter-terrorism programming. They should listen to local women’s groups about how to empower women and build peace, involving activists in project design so as to ensure that funding goes to local priorities and that risks are minimised.

I. Overview

Two decades after the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (WPS), the resolution’s main goals – to protect women from war’s violence and advance their conflict resolution and peacebuilding roles – are largely unmet. Reasons are myriad, but one difficulty lies in the increasing involvement of women’s groups working on WPS in programs under the rubric of “countering violent extremism” (CVE). Merging WPS goals with CVE activities has often worked to women’s detriment, undercutting efforts to safeguard and empower them. It has even sometimes put them in harm’s way, by aligning them with governments or state security forces and making them targets of militant violence. By recognising how efforts to combine the two agendas play out on the ground, often hindering what both WPS and CVE aim to achieve, governments, donors and the UN can reshape their approach to give local women’s groups a greater voice in framing and fine-tuning policy. Doing so would both enhance women’s agency and reduce their suffering. 

Even among the WPS agenda’s most fervent supporters, many acknowledge that it needs recalibrating. Resolution 1325 calls on states to aid women’s efforts to counter forces that endanger their rights and safety, better protect them from violence during conflicts and include them more systematically in peacemaking efforts. Yet in all the world’s deadliest conflicts, women and girls remain in great peril. It is among the resolution’s achievements that the imperative of including women in peace talks and among peacekeepers’ ranks is no longer controversial, but such gains are too few and too modest.

These difficulties are compounded by women’s groups increasing involvement in CVE-related work. CVE, often portrayed as a milder complement to counter-terrorism, expanded dramatically in the mid-2010s as the Islamic State (ISIS) took over territory in the Middle East, attracting foreign fighters and inspiring or organising attacks abroad. CVE work tends to comprise activities designed to disrupt Islamist militant recruitment by diminishing militancy’s appeal and, in some cases, tackling its root causes. In principle, a framework aimed at countering violence and intolerance, as CVE aims to do, should align with one that promotes women’s equality and security. No doubt there are many instances where involving women’s groups in CVE activities has enabled women to inform security policies, discourage militant recruitment of young people, and facilitate better relations between communities and security forces. In many cases, however, it has not. 

Aligning women’s activism with state priorities can put women at physical risk and erode their ability to combat misogynistic and patriarchal practices.

Women’s groups describe dangers in CVE work. In areas affected by Islamist militancy, they report getting pulled, often due to funds available, into activities ranging from workshops studying drivers of militancy to attempts at discrediting militant propaganda to surveillance schemes that align them too closely with states that are often repressive. Many argue that the need to please donors has distorted their work, forcing them to shift or adapt their priorities to those that funding agencies care about. Aligning women’s activism with state priorities can put women at physical risk and erode their ability to combat misogynistic and patriarchal practices or protect rights that often already face local resistance. Combining WPS and CVE often simply does not work, compromising both women’s well-being and violence reduction efforts. It can reinforce stereotypes positing men as perpetrators of violence and women as passive victims or bystanders, presumptions that can mean women are neglected in post-conflict demobilisation and reintegration and that men and teenage boys are even more exposed to security forces’ abuses. 

These findings suggest several course corrections. Ideally, donors would redirect CVE funds to activities that women’s groups and those they represent believe are important. At the very least, they, the UN and national authorities should give women’s groups opportunities to shape local violence prevention efforts. If women activists had this role, they could steer programs away from activities that might endanger them, while ensuring that efforts are based on local demand rather than outside priorities. The many advocates and practitioners of the WPS agenda, from grassroots women’s groups and feminist security scholars to WPS envoys and gender experts in governments, UN agencies and other multilateral organisations, should themselves raise awareness of dangers in drawing women’s groups into CVE work and how to minimise them. Officials, donors and other actors involved in security or peacebuilding work should adopt a more nuanced understanding of how conflicts affect and involve people of all genders, so as to avoid basing policy on stereotypes about their respective roles. 

Such steps would not in themselves protect women caught up in violence or facing hostility to their work. But they would give women a greater voice, minimise risks and allow international actors to more responsibly advance WPS principles in parts of the world where women need them the most. 

II. The Gradual Integration of WPS Goals into CVE

For some years after 2000, when the UN Security Council set out a global vision for women, peace and security, groups working to promote that vision largely steered clear of counter-terrorism or other “hard security” approaches.[fn]This briefing is based on several dozen telephone interviews with a wide range of sources, including women’s rights activists, civil society groups, government workers and donor officials in Somalia, Kenya, Nigeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Tunisia and Kyrgyzstan; former and current UN staff and consultants; and academics and researchers with expertise in both women, peace and security (WPS) and countering violent extremism (CVE) and counter-terrorism. Although the UN employs the term “prevention of violent extremism” in its programming, this briefing uses the term CVE, because the associated policies are largely the same and because policymakers and practitioners tend to use the two terms interchangeably. On the early relationship of WPS to CVE, see Fionnuala Ni Aolain, “The ‘War on Terror’ and Extremism: Assessing the Relevance of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda”, International Affairs, vol. 92, no. 2 (2016).Hide Footnote Resolution 1325 lays out a four-pillar agenda: first, greater women’s participation in peacemaking and peacebuilding; secondly, the protection of women and girls from sexual and gender-based violence and abuse in wartime; thirdly, greater effort to prevent attacks against women; and fourthly, the inclusion of women and gender awareness in relief and recovery efforts. WPS work first gained prominence by focusing on protecting women from sexual and gender-based violence during wars, and later by championing women’s participation in peace talks.[fn]See Alessia Rodríguez Di Eugenio, “1325+20=? Mapping the Development of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda”, School of Public Policy and Global Affairs, University of British Columbia, October 2019; Paul Kirby and Laura J. Shepherd, “The Futures Past of the Women, Peace and Security Agenda”, International Affairs, vol. 92, no. 2 (2016).Hide Footnote

CVE itself originated as a course correction to harsh post-9/11 security policies.[fn]For background on CVE, see Crisis Group Special Report N°1, Exploiting Disorder: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State, 1 March 2016. See also Owen Frazer and Christan Nunlist, “The Concept of Countering Violent Extremism”, Centre for Security Studies (Zurich), December 2015; Peter Romaniuk, “Does CVE Work? Lessons Learned from the Global Effort to Counter Violent Extremism”, Global Center on Cooperative Security, September 2015.Hide Footnote Its scope expanded dramatically in the mid-2010s, as ISIS captured swathes of Iraq and Syria and tens of thousands of mostly young people travelled to its self-declared caliphate, often lured by the group’s sophisticated online outreach. Around the same time, jihadists became increasingly prominent on many of the world’s other battlefields. Alongside this mobilisation, a spate of ISIS-orchestrated or inspired attacks in the West pushed Islamist militancy to the top of Western governments’ agendas. CVE began garnering exponentially more resources and political capital from Western governments and then multilateral organisations, from the UN to the European and African Unions. Gulf states also began to pour money into CVE work.[fn]In 2017, soon after the UN Secretary-General launched his PVE Plan of Action, the UN Office for Counter-Terrorism assumed the roles of the Counter-Terrorism Implementation Task Force and UN Counter-Terrorism Centre. As with the Task Force and the Centre, voluntary contributions from Saudi Arabia, which contributed $100 million to the Centre in 2012, “remain the main funding source for UN counter-terrorism efforts in the UNOCT era. The only donor to rival Saudi Arabia’s contributions is Qatar, which pledged $75 million in December 2018”. Ali Alitok and Jordan Street, "A Fourth Pillar for the United Nations? The Rise of Counter-terrorism", Saferworld, June 2020, pp. 10-11. See also “UNOCT Consolidated Multi-year Appeal”, UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote The Western countries that blazed the CVE trail, prominently the U.S. and UK, devised domestic security programs that shaped CVE activities they also pursued abroad.[fn]Crisis Group historically does not work on conflict dynamics in Western countries. But other examinations of CVE programming’s effects on women and civil society routinely find similar deleterious dynamics in the Western countries that practice gender-mainstreamed CVE at home. See, for example, the “Special Issue on Prevent”, Feminist Dissent, no. 4 (2019). Hide Footnote

Some critics have warned that governments’ CVE efforts can stigmatise Muslims, delegitimise political grievances and restrict civic space.

Some controversy accompanied CVE’s growth.[fn]See Richard Atwood, “The dangers lurking in the U.N.’s new plan to prevent violent extremism”, Reuters, 8 February 2016; Alitok and Street, “A Fourth Pillar for the United Nations?”, op. cit.; Naz Modirzadeh, “If It’s Broke, Don’t Make it Worse: A Critique of the U.N. Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism”, Lawfare, January 2016.Hide Footnote In principle, CVE can entail policies aiming to discredit militants’ often savvy recruitment messages and spot warning signs before people get drawn into militancy. It can also involve efforts to redress social ills assumed to underpin support for militancy, whether security forces’ abuses, bad governance or lack of opportunity for youths. In practice, much CVE work has focused on “counter-narratives” that seek to refute militant propaganda and reflect unwarranted assumptions about the link between certain religious beliefs and violence. CVE has sceptics who see it as drifting too far away from traditional counter-terrorism.[fn]See, for example, the testimony of Robin Simcox before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security, Subcommittee on Counterterrorism and Intelligence, 28 February 2017. See also Robin Simcox, “Can America’s Countering Violent Extremism efforts be salvaged?”, War on the Rocks, 17 December 2018.Hide Footnote At the same time, civil society actors in the West and the Global South have questioned its framing and flagged the danger of basing policy on the ill-defined term “extremism”.[fn]See “Human Rights Impact of Policies and Practices Aimed at Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (A/HRC/43/46)”, UN Human Rights Council, 21 February 2020; Modirzadeh, “If It’s Broke, Don’t Make it Worse”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Some critics have warned that governments’ CVE efforts can stigmatise Muslims, delegitimise political grievances and restrict civic space, often through expanded surveillance. They often caution civil society groups about the risks of getting involved.[fn]See Tahir Abbas, “Implementing ‘Prevent’ in Countering Violent Extremism in the UK: A Left Realist Critique”, Critical Social Policy, vol. 38 (2018); Elizabeth Mesok, “Women, Peace and Security and the Prevention of Violence: Reflections from Civil Society in the Context of the Fourth Swiss National Action Plan 1325”, Swiss Platform for Peacebuilding/swisspeace, 2019; Jayne Huckerby, “Women, Gender and the U.K. Government’s Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) Efforts: Looking Back and Forward”, in Naureen Chowdhury Fink, Sara Zeiger and Rafia Bhulai (eds.), A Man’s World: Exploring the Roles of Women in Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism (New York, 2016).Hide Footnote

As CVE’s scope expanded, it started to suck in work related to women’s protection and empowerment. One reason was that the UN, reflecting the goals of its most powerful member states, wished to formally merge CVE and WPS. UN Resolution 2242, passed in 2015 on 1325’s fifteenth anniversary, called on states and the UN itself to integrate greater women’s leadership and gender considerations into counter-terrorism and CVE work, a process called gender mainstreaming. The resolution, drafted by the UK at the height of ISIS’s territorial control, aimed to ensure that CVE factored in women’s needs and to capitalise on the attention to CVE in order to supercharge 1325’s implementation.[fn]One peacebuilding expert noted that the UK was the discreet but powerful driving force behind Resolution 2242. Crisis Group interview, August 2020.Hide Footnote It directs states to produce gender-sensitive CVE National Action Plans and enjoins the UN to build gender sensitivity into the policies of its main security bodies, the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism and the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate. 

For states, the resolution endorsed a general direction of travel toward CVE policy; for international bodies, it had several implications. At the UN itself, it meant new protocols for gender analysis throughout the UN’s counter-terrorism activities and greater consideration of gender dynamics in studies of militant recruitment and the work of law enforcement agencies. The UN Development Programme (UNDP) began to show greater appetite for combined CVE and WPS programming. Other multilateral organisations like the EU and NATO followed suit, as did Western states’ development arms. All now routinely merge much of their WPS and security programming. 

Advocates for merging WPS and CVE goals offer strong arguments. Militant groups, most visibly and recently ISIS, energetically recruit women with sophisticated propaganda catering to their specific aspirations and needs, while at the same time inflicting terrible violence and abuse upon women who join their ranks. That jihadists were increasingly deploying gender strategies, and that states’ counter-terrorism operations were affecting women as well, made it almost self-evident that violence prevention efforts required an infusion of gender analysis as well as women’s input and engagement. According to one senior UN gender expert, involving women in CVE work creates a space where hard security logic, particularly its harmful effects on women, can be challenged.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, UN gender CVE expert, November 2020.Hide Footnote

The merger has other advantages for donors. Because CVE and gender equality objectives can overlap to some extent, donors can seek to support both aims on the ground at once. For example, a 2020 U.S. call for funding proposals in Kenya states its primary aim as strengthening “community-led, CVE-relevant support and response structures in at-risk communities in Garissa and Lamu counties”.[fn]“Notice of Funding Opportunity: Strengthening Community Capacity and Government Coordination in Preventing Radicalization and Terrorist Recruitment”, DOS-NBO-POL-FY20-0001, U.S. Embassy in Nairobi, U.S. Department of State, 2020.Hide Footnote The notice outlines that a key expected result of the grant is that local women leaders will “have an improved ability to identify and intervene in radicalisation cases in their own communities”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Donors can easily classify such grants as WPS expenditures. Thus, donors can seem to fund WPS work while redoubling the efforts to stamp out jihadism that are the higher political priority. 

In contrast, those who criticise the way WPS has been integrated into CVE fear that the process has taken on a momentum of its own, putting work aimed at empowering and protecting women at the service of states’ security interests. Some even argue that merging the two has led to the “militarisation of 1325”.[fn]“Prioritise Peace: Challenging Approaches to Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism from a Women, Peace and Security Perspective”, Gender Action for Peace and Security, April 2018.Hide Footnote Too often in projects with both CVE and WPS goals, they argue, little money trickles down to women’s groups.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, senior Western donor officials, November 2020. Also see “Tightening the Purse Strings: What Countering Terrorism Financing Costs Gender Equality and Security”, Duke Law International Human Rights Clinic and Women Peacemakers Program, 2017; “Women, Peace and Security: Report of the Secretary-General”, UN Security Council, October 2019; “Financing UN Security Council Resolution 1325: Aid in Support of Gender Equality and Women’s Rights in Fragile Contexts”, OSCE DAC Network on Gender Equality, March 2015.Hide Footnote In reality, they say, CVE has not emerged as a platform for WPS advocates to hold counter-terrorism practices to account.[fn]See Jayne Huckerby, “In Harm’s Way: Gender and Human Rights in National Security”, Duke University School of Law, 2020; and Fionnuala Ni Aolain and Jayne Huckerby, “Gendering Counterterrorism: How to and How Not to – Part II”, Just Security, 3 May 2018.Hide Footnote They may agree with the notion of gender mainstreaming, but they say the way it is currently done is imprecise, often failing to chart where security and empowerment goals cease to overlap and where relying on women becomes counterproductive or harmful to them. Moreover, WPS practitioners’ relatively late arrival to CVE means that they have struggled to identify and minimise the potentially harmful implications of their involvement. Such concerns appear to be borne out on the ground.

III. Distorting the Work of Local Women’s Groups

Perhaps the most frequent complaint from local women’s groups about CVE is that it obliges them to reorient activities away from what they view as top local concerns to what they see as external priorities.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s human rights activists and civil society groups, Nairobi, Mombasa, Baringo, Puntland, Mogadishu, Maiduguri, Bishkek, Tunis, Kabul and Islamabad, August, September and October 2020.Hide Footnote Donor demands can shift women’s civic work from dealing with the types of violence that most trouble them. In some cases, they can actively distort women’s activities. Women’s activists and civil society leaders in regions where donors have focused on CVE – from Central Asia to the Middle East to Africa – say these dynamics are routine and pronounced.

Donor demands can shift women’s civic work from dealing with the types of violence that most trouble them.

Take Kyrgyzstan, for example. As in many countries, civil society groups in this Muslim-majority country are largely dependent on Western donors and beholden to their shifting interests.[fn]Kloe Tricot O’Farrell and Jordan Street, “A Threat Inflated? The Countering and Preventing Violent Extremism Agenda in Kyrgyzstan”, Saferworld, March 2019.Hide Footnote Meanwhile, Kyrgyzstan’s domestic politics is notoriously unstable, with governments felled in the wake of mass protests and violence three times in the last fifteen years. Most recently, just this fall, the government collapsed and security forces harassed peaceful protesters. Meanwhile, a former politician previously imprisoned for kidnapping assumed power as both president and prime minister, passing a law delaying elections. In this fraught political and social environment, donors and international organisations have made CVE their top priority.[fn]Ibid.; Chiara Pierobon, Preventing Violent Extremism in Kyrgyzstan: The Role of the International Donor Community”, OSCE Academy Bishkek, March 2020.Hide Footnote In 2015 and 2016, moderate numbers of Kyrgyz travelled to Syria, mostly to join ISIS, and the Kyrgyz government and major Western donors stepped up CVE programming, hoping it would staunch the flow and prevent jihadists from expanding operations to Central Asia. 

Kyrgyz NGOs and activists, including those primarily devoted to women’s empowerment, report feeling obliged to adapt projects accordingly.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, NGO activists in southern Kyrgyzstan, April and May 2020; Kyrgyzstan security expert, August 2020; and former country director for Bishkek-based international NGO, October 2020.Hide Footnote They often label groups of people – from labour migrants to youth to women – as “vulnerable to radicalisation” in order to win a steady stream of funding.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Kyrgyzstan security expert, August 2020.Hide Footnote Some groups have even found themselves expanding the working definition of “extremism” to encompass religious minorities, including a small group of ascetic dervishes from the country’s rural north who have never been associated with violence.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, NGO leaders, Bishkek, February and December 2019; Crisis Group telephone interview, former country director for Bishkek-based international NGO, October 2020. The justification that civil society groups reportedly used to include the dervishes in CVE programming was that they “destroy Kyrgyz culture” by forbidding their children to watch television and participating minimally in other mainstream practices. One group labelled the dervishes themselves as “violent extremists” in order to be eligible for the funding, as it was reportedly insufficient to classify them as “vulnerable to radicalisation”. Hide Footnote

Similar pressures are apparent in Tunisia. Women’s groups complain that in order to secure funds they must hold CVE workshops, bringing together women to discuss how to dispel the ideological appeal of militancy, even though they believe they could be more effective working on problems like police abuse and harassment or women’s unemployment and economic exclusion.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Tunis-based development expert, September 2020.Hide Footnote Paradoxically, efforts to address those problems might have more impact, albeit indirect, in disrupting militant recruitment, given that some such grievances reportedly catalysed the mobilisation of Tunisians to Syria as well as women’s involvement in acts of political violence or militant recruitment in the country.[fn]Maro Youssef and Hamza Mighri, “Women’s Groups Take on Radicalization in Tunisia”, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, March 2019.Hide Footnote

The distortion of their work aggravates an already difficult situation for Tunisian women’s groups, notably in the country’s deprived hinterlands. They contend with intolerant opponents hostile to women’s empowerment, who cast it as a Western liberal agenda that runs counter to traditional Tunisian Arab and Islamic norms.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote When grassroots women’s rights groups get involved in CVE, often based on poorly defined interpretations of “extremism”, it makes that already tense work more fraught. As one development expert based in Tunisia explained, the sense that this security agenda serves Western needs instead of local priorities causes resentment among and increases pressure on local activists. It may even lend credence to what the activists’ conservative critics say: “It [fuels] those who say, ‘Look, America, Europe and Israel want to destroy the family’”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Tunis-based UN expert, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Across the Horn of Africa, women’s groups find themselves increasingly unable to secure donor support to combat the types of violence women most frequently encounter.

Across the Horn of Africa, women’s groups find themselves increasingly unable to secure donor support to combat the types of violence women most frequently encounter, because funding remains concentrated on CVE and ideological factors that donors associate with jihadism. Comparing the investment in CVE programming to the money spent on WPS is challenging, but data shows that governments, the UN and EU have sunk hundreds of millions into Horn CVE programming. 

In Kenya, for example, the UK, EU, U.S. and UNDP collectively spent $61 million on six CVE programs between 2016 and 2020.[fn]See “Preventing Violent Extremism: Lessons from Kenya”, Princeton University, January 2020; “CTR – Strengthening Resilience to Violent Extremism II – STRIVE II, European Commission”, Project 5466, EU Trust Fund Database, 2016; “Kenya Niwajibu Wetu”, USAID Fact Sheet, February 2020; and “2KEN18237 PREVENT-PVE Networks Together”, UNDP Project Database, 2020.Hide Footnote In Somalia, the UK, U.S. and UNDP are spending $168.7 million on CVE between 2015 and 2021.[fn]See “CSSF Programme Summary: Somalia Counter-Extremism Programme”, UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, n.d.; “Strengthening Somali Governance”, USAID Fact Sheet, October 2017; “Somalia Overview”, USAID Fact Sheet, February 2020; and “Somali Strategy and Action Plan”, UNDP, 2020.Hide Footnote Similarly, the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism requested $4.9 million in 2019 for the UNDP, UN Women and the High Commissioner for Human Rights to carry out two CVE projects in Kenya, as well as $2.5 million for a UN program in Somalia.[fn]“UNOCT Consolidated Multi-Year Appeal”, UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, 2019-2020.Hide Footnote These large investments stand in stark contrast to the funds donors report as directed to local women’s organisations in the Horn of Africa. In 2018, the UK spent $525,000 on aid that went directly to women’s rights organisations and movements with a principal gender equality objective in Kenya, while the EU and U.S. do not appear to have funded any such work.[fn]2018 Aid Projects Targeting Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment”, OECD DAC Database. Hide Footnote In Somalia, the UK and EU spent $1.4 million and $14,000, respectively, on aid that went to women’s rights organisations and movements in 2018, while the U.S. again seems not to have funded any.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

 The founder of an organisation in Baringo, in Kenya’s Rift Valley region, said female genital mutilation and gender-based violence were far more pervasive in her area than militancy, but that she was obliged to raise funds directly from area residents for such work, rather than from donors, because in her experience “these issues are not in line with government and international bodies’ interests”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s civil society group founder from Baringo, September 2020.Hide Footnote In Mombasa, a Kenyan port city, a woman who serves on several female empowerment groups’ boards said she witnessed groups trying to frame their work on water shortages, teenage pregnancy and gang violence in the coastal regions as countering terrorism, “even though the two have little connection”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Mombasa-based woman activist, September 2020.Hide Footnote In order to secure funding, she said, they were forced to align with agendas aimed at weakening the Islamist militant group Al-Shabaab, even though mounting gang violence was a greater concern.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Many other women activists in the Horn echo such concerns.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, women activists and academic specialising in gender and international security, Leicester, Mombasa, Nairobi and by telephone, September 2020.Hide Footnote

The same pattern is apparent in Afghanistan. Activists report cases where they have been unable to obtain funds for priorities local women identify as urgent, ranging from women’s unemployment to shortages of undergraduate textbooks in the Kabul University library.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists in Kabul and Paris, August-October 2020.Hide Footnote One activist devised a project to run a women’s news agency, streaming gender-sensitive news into households, including rural ones, to make an oblique case for women’s rights and public participation in daily doses and in the context of local news. Several donors told her that such a project fell outside their funding mandates.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Kabul-based women’s rights activist, October 2020.Hide Footnote At the same time, activities involving “counter-narratives” and “messaging” about women’s rights aimed at discrediting militants’ propaganda, from billboards to action films, found ready and generous donors.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, researcher, women’s rights campaigner, grassroots organiser, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote The activist said it was distressing that her local judgment as to how to shift attitudes about gender in her society did not align with donors’ approaches: “This is what changes mindsets … But the donors’ eyes are [like] a gaze from above to below. They think you don’t understand the needs of your own society”.[fn]

Not all specialists share such concerns. One acknowledged that women activists may view donors’ priorities as skewed but noted that funding structures are complex and that often there are no actual trade-offs.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former Western official involved in WPS, October 2020.Hide Footnote “Money that is spent on WPS is not the money that goes into CVE”, a former Western official explained. “If there was less money spent on CVE, it doesn’t mean more would be spent on WPS. There are also interesting projects that can achieve two things at once”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Donors also point out that approaches vary widely. While some may deal with women’s groups to further their own interests, many do try to tailor projects to those groups’ needs. One seasoned expert in women’s peacebuilding who runs a network that disburses funds on donors’ behalf says some governments are willing to adapt their funding relationships to allow partners to build work around their own priorities.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, founder of women’s civil society group, November 2020.Hide Footnote

Others argue that CVE is mostly a benign label applied in New York, Washington and European capitals that allows funders to channel money allocated to counter-terrorism to civil society groups, including women’s groups, that badly need resources and otherwise might not get them. On paper, the argument goes, the funds are listed as CVE but on the ground the recipients often use them for other valuable work. A former donor gender expert said concerns about repackaging activities and risk did not come up much in her conversations with women in conflict zones about how CVE was affecting them. “It’s important to leave it up to women and their own agency to make decisions about whether to participate”, she said, noting a divide between local conversations and those in New York and Geneva.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, former donor gender policy expert, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Still, many local actors see things differently. A women’s rights activist from the Global South with two decades of experience in the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan noted that the interaction between women’s groups and their wealthy supporters is often subtle, with expectations so implicit and internalised that they condition what ideas women’s activists put forward for consideration.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights expert and organiser, September 2020.Hide Footnote “They tell you, ‘We don’t want to force you. We’re not attaching strings. We just want you to be competitive’. But you know they won’t fund you if you do something else”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Crisis Group telephone interview, Kabul-based women’s rights activist, October 2020.Hide Footnote

IV. Putting Activists in Harm’s Way

Especially troubling is that women activists’ involvement in governments’ CVE work can endanger them, even in ways that get them killed.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s NGO leaders and activists, Nairobi, Mombasa, Baringo, Mogadishu and Puntland, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote The association can mean that activists, whose work often encounters local resistance on its own terms, are viewed by opponents as even more objectionable because they are affiliated with the state and security services. They can become targets, putting them and the women they seek to assist at risk.[fn]Ibid.; “Human Rights Impact of Policies and Practices Aimed at Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism”, op. cit.; Jayne Huckerby, “The Complexities of Women, Peace and Security and Countering Violent Extremism”, Just Security, 24 September 2015.Hide Footnote

Especially troubling is that women activists’ involvement in governments’ CVE work can endanger them, even in ways that get them killed.

Some women’s groups working in Pakistan avoid the term CVE entirely, in order to protect themselves. “CVE is associated so closely with counter-terrorism and the state’s militaristic approach that communities would not accept us if we did. They would see us as linked with that”, said one woman.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights activist in Pakistan, September 2020.Hide Footnote In Pakistan, the problem goes even deeper. Because of the messy relationship security agencies themselves have with militants – cracking down on some while tolerating or even supporting others – security officials are suspicious of civil society groups working on CVE and have banned those that frame their work thusly from parts of the country.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, post-conflict and governance expert in Islamabad, September 2020.Hide Footnote

In Somalia and Kenya, women say that engaging in CVE work stigmatises both them and those they work with, exposing them to a range of dangers.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s NGO leaders and activists, Nairobi, Mombasa, Baringo, Mogadishu and Puntland, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote Al-Shabaab has attacked one Somali group running peacebuilding and CVE projectsseveral times, killing staff members on two occasions. Its head explained that local groups working on CVE are perceived as agents of foreign powers: “The minute you start working on CVE, you’re targeted”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights activist in Puntland, August 2020.Hide Footnote A Kenyan activist described a project that supported women who mentored local young men to counter Al-Shabaab’s appeal.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Mombasa-based women’s rights activist and practitioner, August 2020.Hide Footnote Security forces monitored the work, followed one teenage boy who was receiving counselling and shot him at the local mosque, in front of his female case worker.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The killing put the activist herself at risk of reprisal by the boy’s family, causing her to move from town to town in order to stay safe.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote As the head of the women’s group explained, the killing tore up the group’s relations with the community: “Even the people who used to trust us, they say, ‘You are the ones selling us out’”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

A focus on Islamism, which reflects assumptions about the link between religious ideology and militancy and which courses through much CVE programming, also brings risks.[fn]The notion that Islamist ideology is the key driving factor in Islamist militant mobilisation is ubiquitous in CVE discourse and has formed the basis of a substantial amount of programming, despite the mixed picture that emerges from empirical evidence and the complicated relationship between ideology and militancy. Numerous studies outline the range of factors beyond ideology that can lead to militancy in different places, ranging from political exclusion and shrinking civic space to weak state capacity, state collapse and failing security. See, for example, “Human Rights Impact of Policies and Practices Aimed at Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism”, op. cit.Hide Footnote Many women’s activists contend with patriarchal social norms and elders who already resent work promoting women’s rights. These critics’ anger is compounded when activists are associated with CVE work that promotes alternative interpretations of Islam that run counter to their own beliefs.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights activist, Mogadishu, September 2020.Hide Footnote One Somali activist who works prominently in the media challenging Al-Shabaab’s rhetoric said this perception is widespread: “[People] have called me and told me they will kill me, because I am against Islam”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Similarly, in Nigeria’s north east, women’s groups face threats from conservative groups and militants for activities empowering women. When they also run projects that some locals perceive as speaking out against conservative Islam, their efforts can be imperilled further, in part because their arguments are conflated with government and donor CVE work.[fn]Donor support for women challenging patriarchal interpretations of religion is well intentioned. The fact that it is often counterproductive when linked with CVE does not mean that donors should not back such efforts. Rather, donors should consider delinking such programs from counter-insurgency and think more carefully about how to avoid inadvertently hurting them.Hide Footnote

Many donors dispute the notion that CVE programming or framing itself exposes women to risks.

Many donors dispute the notion that CVE programming or framing itself exposes women to risks. They argue that funders mean well and are trying to aid women’s efforts where violence is endemic and interventions are by nature risky.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, senior Western donors, November 2020. Also see CIVI.POL Conseil and the Royal United Services Institute, “Operational Guidelines on the Preparation and Implementation of EU-Financed Actions Specific to Countering Terrorism and Violent Extremism in Third Countries”,European Commission Directorate-General for International Cooperation and Development – EuropeAid, “Security, Nuclear Safety” Unit, 2017.Hide Footnote One EU official noted that examining security aspects of CVE engagement is routine.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, EU official, November 2020.Hide Footnote “You always need to make sure you’re keeping the group you’re bringing together safe”, she said. “You need to be aware you’re not stigmatising the groups and making it a lot worse for the target you’re trying to help”.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote She said programming was often flexible and could be reshuffled as needed to account for realities on the ground.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote A senior UN gender expert argues that critics often conflate dangers in CVE work with risks inherent to settings rife with militancy. “The issues won’t go away if you change the name of the [approach], just because you want to manage the manifestation of the challenge”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, senior UN gender expert, October 2020.Hide Footnote

Yet many local groups chafe at having to shift focus and then face danger accompanying their work. Several activists say their groups are aware of the risks and resent the way some donors appear to accept them as inevitable. But they take the risks nevertheless – in order to secure funding.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists, Mombasa, Nairobi, Mogadishu and Puntland, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote Were donors to consult them more during project design, such that they could pitch safer alternative activities and still win grants, many say, they would not have to confront such choices.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

V. Programs’ Frequent Ineffectiveness

Beyond distorting women’s activists’ work and sometimes putting them in harm’s way, many hybrid CVE and women’s empowerment programs simply do not work. They neither deter militancy nor aid women in tackling the threats that concern them most.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s NGO leaders and activists, security researcher, representatives of an international peacebuilding NGO, academic specialising in gender and international security, Leicester, London, Mombasa and Nairobi, August and September 2020. Hide Footnote Although this ineffectiveness can reflect the broader challenges of aid flowing into impoverished societies ill equipped to absorb it, the additional funds and attention CVE brings have aggravated these problems.[fn]See Dambisa Moyo, Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa (New York, 2009); “At high-level discussion, UN officials highlight costs of corruption on societies”, UN News, 9 July 2012; and Elizabeth David-Barrett, Mihaly Fazekas, Olli Hellmann, Lili Mark and Ciara McCorley,“Controlling Corruption in Development Aid: New Evidence from Contract-Level Data”, SSRN Electronic Journal (2018).Hide Footnote Interviews with practitioners are anecdotal but suggest widespread difficulties.

Many hybrid CVE and women’s empowerment programs neither deter militancy nor aid women in tackling the threats that concern them most.

Across the Horn of Africa, many experienced activists and peacebuilders say the grassroots work that merges WPS into governments’ CVE action plans has often been ineffective.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s NGO leaders and activists, Mombasa, Nairobi and Mogadishu, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote Many report an overwhelming focus on forums, workshops, trainings, dialogues and conferences that feel detached from realities where they live and work.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Mombasa-based women’s rights activist and practitioner, August 2020. Hide Footnote They argue that these activities often lack a solid research or evidence base, and combined with a routine lack of follow-up, leave the impression among activists that the programming is haphazard and its aims unclear.[fn]Ibid. Hide Footnote

Even beyond the workshops, governments often appear to be looking for quick fixes that place too much of the burden for solving complex social problems on women’s groups’ shoulders. In some cases, donors fund programming with a shallow impact in the hope of reversing deeply rooted drivers of violence that usually require more serious changes by governments themselves.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists, Khartoum, Nairobi and Mombasa, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote Were donors to accompany such programs with broader efforts to prod governments toward necessary reform, that would be one thing. Too often, however, women’s groups feel that is not happening and they are expected, on their own, to solve deep-seated problems. Some leading women’s activists in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan have stopped taking Western funding, because they perceive donors are asking them to address problems that governments should tackle, often by overhauling their own practices.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, Kabul and Khartoum-based women’s rights activist and organisation head, August 2020.Hide Footnote As one Sudanese activist said: “How can NGOs deal with growing Islamist militancy? This is a task that requires social movements, political will, government support and the restructuring of states”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights activist, Khartoum, August 2020. Hide Footnote

Some leading women’s activists in the Horn of Africa and Afghanistan have stopped taking Western funding, because they perceive donors are asking them to address problems that governments should tackle.

Police reform in the breakaway region of Somaliland illustrates the challenges. An NGO tried to train and integrate female officers into the local police, with the aim of both bringing women into the traditionally male-dominated security sphere and enlisting their help in engaging with women supposedly at risk of militant recruitment.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Burao-based head of NGO, October 2020. For background on the breakaway region, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°280, Somalia-Somaliland: The Perils of Delaying New Talks, 12 July 2019.Hide Footnote But the women mostly ended up as cleaners in stations or sitting in cars, guiding traffic.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Nairobi-based security researcher, September 2020.Hide Footnote Upping the numbers of women police is also important for counter-insurgency efforts in federal Somalia, as female Al-Shabaab associates ferry weapons for the group and women security officials can screen other women more securely, reducing the chance of abuse by male security forces that angers locals.[fn]See Crisis Group Africa Briefing N°145, Women and Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency, 27 June 2019.Hide Footnote But initiatives like this one, which try to skip ahead to donor-pleasing metrics, like numbers of women in a male-dominated police force, rarely work, as they leave untouched discrimination against women that prevents them from wielding authority and playing a more useful role in security bodies.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, security researchers, Nairobi and The Hague, September 2020.Hide Footnote

Several activists with decades of collective experience in the Horn of Africa say the influx of funds and donors’ demands for women-run CVE programs has further commercialised the sector.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists and practitioners, Mombasa, Nairobi, Khartoum, Mogadishu and Puntland, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote A woman activist in Kenya recounted being called upon to facilitate a CVE workshop in Nairobi for women supposedly linked to Al-Shabaab. There she encountered her own ex-in-laws, whom she knew had never been associated with the militants. They told her they had been paid to attend.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights activist and practitioner, Mombasa, August 2020.Hide Footnote

In Kyrgyzstan, enlistment in CVE has undercut NGOs’ more effective work, in this case by politicising their efforts. Once involved in CVE, activists are implicitly obliged to allow the authorities to scrutinise their work and to cooperate with local officials who pressure them to invite representatives from the security services to events (the government tightly regulates and oversees any CVE work).[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, female activists, Kyrgyzstan, April and May 2020; Crisis Group telephone interview, Kyrgyzstan security expert, August 2020.Hide Footnote Activists noted that these officials’ presence made it harder to attract the ethnic and religious minorities they hoped to reach. Local politicians with authority over CVE-related events also steered local organisations toward putting on one-off events that generated publicity but had no lasting effect, such as, for example, a “parade against terrorism” organised by one city government.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Activists also found that discussions of militancy were so rife with stereotypes about ideology and religious belief that they caused offence among some female participants, who resented the pervasive clichés – that women who wear hijab support terrorism, for example, or that religious minorities are inherently dangerous.[fn]Noah Tucker, “What Happens When Your Town Becomes an ISIS Recruiting Ground? Lessons from Central Asia about Vulnerability, Resistance and the Danger of Ignoring Perceived Injustice”, George Washington University Central Asia Program, July 2018.Hide Footnote

VI. Gender Stereotyping

Another challenge is gender stereotyping. Women’s support or involvement underpins a number of Islamist insurgent movements, including ISIS, Al-Shabaab and Boko Haram and its offshoots around Lake Chad, among others.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Women and Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency, op. cit.; and Crisis Group Africa Report N°275, Returning from the Land of Jihad: The Fate of Women Associated with Boko Haram, 21 May 2019. See also Joana Cook and Gina Vale, “From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’: Tracing the Women and Minors of Islamic State”, International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, 2018.Hide Footnote Yet for the most part the assumptions underpinning CVE and WPS work tend to paint women as victims or peacebuilders and men as perpetrators but rarely victims of violence, a trend magnified when the two agendas combine.[fn]Emily Winterbotham, “What Can Work (and What Has Not Worked) in Women-Centric P/CVE Initiatives: Assessing the Evidence Base for Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism”, RUSI, May 2020.Hide Footnote Scholars and practitioners increasingly recognise a more complex reality – both men and women are involved in militancy – and some have urged governments and donors not to simplify women’s roles.[fn]See, for example, “Human Rights Impact of Policies and Practices Aimed at Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism”, op. cit.Hide Footnote On the ground, however, activities are often based on crude assumptions about men and women, leading to gaps in programming and sometimes stigmatisation and family separation.

On the ground, activities are often based on crude assumptions about men and women, leading to gaps in programming.

Stereotyping harms both women and men. Programs rarely account for the diverse roles that women play in armed groups, both in opposition to and alliance with the state. Nor do they factor in the complexity of women’s relationships to militancy and reasons why women sometimes form a key social base for armed movements.[fn]See Crisis Group Briefing, Women and Al-Shabaab’s Insurgency, op. cit.; Crisis Group Report, Returning from the Land of Jihad: The Fate of Women Associated with Boko Haram, op. cit.; Crisis Group Middle East Report N°208, Women and Children First: Repatriating the Westerners Affiliated with ISIS, 18 November 2019. Hide Footnote As a result, policy often comes up short: for example, by neglecting women in demobilisation and reintegration efforts or, when including them, paying them less attention than men, meaning that programs offer them less support.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists, Maiduguri, Nairobi, Mombasa, Puntland and Mogadishu, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote At the same time, governments and donors tend not to consider male vulnerabilities and the reality that many men and boys are also coerced and forced to join militant groups.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote Officials and programs often conflate men and older boys from ethno-religious groups or geographical areas in which militants recruit with those engaged in violence. These assumptions can put those men and boys at greater risk of abuse and long-term detention.[fn]Crisis Group researcher’s interviews in a previous capacity, Nigeria-based humanitarian staff and Nigerian soldiers, Abuja and Maiduguri, 2014-2019.Hide Footnote

Stereotyping of women as victims or peacebuilders is widespread. In Tunisia, between 2013 and 2015, several hundred women travelled to Syria or Libya to join ISIS, with many active in recruiting both men and women to the movement.[fn]See Azadeh Moaveni, Guest House for Young Widows: Among the Women of ISIS (London, 2019); Cook and Vale, “From Daesh to ‘Diaspora’”, op. cit.; Richard Barrett, “Beyond the Caliphate: Foreign Fighters and the Threat of Returnees”, The Soufan Center, October 2017; and Michaël Ayari, “Analytical Review: Violent Extremism and Its Motivating Factors in Tunisia in the 2010s”, Office of the Resident Coordinator of the United Nations in Tunisia, November 2017. Hide Footnote Yet the dominant CVE approaches in Tunisia that engage women tend to portray them as mother-educators who can dispel radical ideas in the family or as monitors of troubling signs in children. “It is not based on an analysis of gender relations but on stereotypes”, said a Tunis-based researcher.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Tunisian researcher, September 2020.Hide Footnote Similarly, while women’s support for Al-Shabaab has been crucial to the group’s endurance, CVE in Somalia, like in Tunisia, overwhelmingly focuses on women as victims, peacebuilders or mothers who can keep an eye on their sons.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists, practitioners and researcher, Mogadishu and Puntland, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote “CVE approaches don’t seem to understand the role women actually play. They don’t understand motivating factors and why women support Al-Shabaab [or] their needs to access justice and adjudicate their complaints and conflicts”, said one Somali researcher.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Somali researcher, Nairobi, August 2020.Hide Footnote

Women affiliated with insurgents and who escape or are captured are rarely included in demobilisation programs.

Another result of stereotyping is that women affiliated with insurgents and who escape or are captured are rarely included in demobilisation programs. Nigeria’s gender-stereotyped view of people associated with Boko Haram and its splinter groups shapes policy around disengagement.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, expert in disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programming, Dakar, August 2020. Crisis Group Report, Returning from the Land of Jihad, op. cit. See also Chitra Nagarajan, “Gender Relations in Borno”, British Council, 2019.Hide Footnote Formerly affiliated women and girls receive little to no support from the government and must rely on modest aid from local and foreign NGOs. The authorities often return them directly to their home communities, where they find it difficult to reintegrate and establish livelihoods and can be subjected to sexual violence and stigmatisation. In contrast, men are kept longer in state custody and can face human rights violations but tend to go through some reintegration programming with skills training and preparation for their return to civilian life.[fn]Crisis Group Report, Returning from the Land of Jihad, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Such biases also have a number of deleterious effects on women and children. Those formerly associated with armed groups are often viewed with suspicion by communities and suspected of passing on intelligence or material assistance to militants. Without adequate livelihood support, they rely on humanitarian aid that is often absent or unreliable. Many women, including those who have gone through short, fledgling and poorly resourced rehabilitation programs, have rejoined the insurgency as a result of harsh socio-economic deprivation and mistreatment by residents of their hometowns. In contrast, men who have gone through the far more developed government-run and donor-supported Operation Safe Corridor program seem to have fared better. They emerge with some basic education and skills. So far, they seem to be less likely to return to armed opposition groups.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Operation Safe Corridor former inmates, Maiduguri, December 2019 and March 2020. These are early findings that Crisis Group will publish in a forthcoming report on Operation Safe Corridor. Subsequent research will be required to track long-term trends around these former inmates’ actions and affiliations.Hide Footnote

Similar neglect is evident elsewhere. Somalia has historically offered little to no support for women who leave Al-Shabaab.[fn]The International Organization for Migration does appear to be developing a new program for women, though much about it remains uncertain. Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activist, Somali researcher and British expert on Somalia, Mogadishu, Puntland and London, August and September 2020.Hide Footnote One Somali activist noted: “I’ve seen a lot of rehabilitation and skills for jobs programs for youth and men leaving militant groups, but never for women”.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, women’s rights activist, Mogadishu, August 2020.Hide Footnote Many girls and women who need such support are instead held in prison.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote In Turkey, most women returnees from ISIS have returned home, living secluded lives where they rarely leave the house.[fn]See Crisis Group Europe Report N°258, Calibrating the Response: Turkey’s ISIS Returnees, 29 June 2020.Hide Footnote In Europe, women affiliated with ISIS returning to their home countries have been prosecuted for child neglect and abuse, a criminal charge that does not appear to have been filed against any male foreign fighters.[fn]“CTED Analytical Brief: The Prosecution of ISIL-associated Women”, UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate, 2020.Hide Footnote

As for men and boys, the fact that many officials view them as purveyors of violence rather than victims can make them more vulnerable. Such views contribute to the Nigerian authorities’ harsh treatment of men and teenage boys, with the exception of defectors.[fn]Nagarajan, “Gender Relations in Borno”, op. cit.Hide Footnote From lack of due process and long-term detention without trial to torture or abuse in custody to summary execution, men and teenage boys conscripted or coerced into militant groups in Nigeria experience considerable harm at the military’s hands, in part because officials do not view them as potentially subject to the same predatory coercion or material inducement as the one to which it attributes women’s involvement.[fn]Ibid. Also Crisis Group telephone interview, expert in disarmament, demobilisation, rehabilitation and reintegration programming, Dakar, August 2020.Hide Footnote The notion that men and women alike navigate fraught terrain where insurgents are active and the state is absent does not factor into the government’s view.

VII. What the UN, Donors and States Can Do Better

The dangers women’s groups identify in getting involved in CVE are no secret. From the UN’s corridors in New York to small NGO offices in the world’s remotest corners, many recognise that involvement can be detrimental and throws up another obstacle to the WPS agenda.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, members of peacebuilding organisations, UN staff, officials at multilateral organisations, August, September and October 2020.Hide Footnote

The more challenging part is what to do about it. Although CVE does not command the attention it did when ISIS controlled chunks of the Levant and was orchestrating or inspiring attacks across the world, many donors still view the agenda as a priority and fund it accordingly. Women's groups continue to face strong, even if not always explicit, incentives and pressure to adapt accordingly.

The effectiveness of CVE work in reducing violence and the appeal of militancy and whether it merits the amount of funding it receives remain very much in question.

The UN and donors could help minimise dangers. Broadly speaking, the effectiveness of CVE work in reducing violence and the appeal of militancy and whether it merits the amount of funding it receives remain very much in question. At the least, the UN and donors should commission research on the impact of involving women’s groups in such work. Donors should do more to give women’s groups a greater say in what works best in their societies and what they should support. 

In cutting down dangers, outside funders should take their cues from local women’s groups own preferences. If they argue, for example, that avoiding the CVE label for their activities, staying out of debates about ideology and distancing themselves from state security forces would protect them and make their work more effective, governments and donors should adapt. If they prefer to steer clear of CVE and focus on tackling other forms of violence, donors should listen and account for those views in programming, notwithstanding their own assessments of the dangers that Islamist militancy poses. As standard practice, donors should ask women’s groups to conduct security assessments and to suggest alternatives when they deem work unsafe, so that they need not fear losing funds. Of course, not all women’s groups will agree on the dangers and how to resolve complex problems where they work. Still, such consultation can avert risks in involving them in CVE. Ideally, too, donors would ensure that a fair portion of money spent on large CVE projects actually ends up with and benefits women’s groups that are involved. 

There are examples of donors showing flexibility and civil society successfully changing tack. In southern Kyrgyzstan, a project that coached young people on how to prevent violence and engage in local decision-making decided that it would be more effective to drop discussion of ideology. The project coordinators negotiated with the donor, who had earmarked funds for “creating resilience against extremist ideologies”, asking to proceed but without this language and ideological framing.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, women’s rights activists, Kyrgyzstan, April and May 2020.Hide Footnote The donor agreed, and the external evaluation concluded that the project benefitted.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, Kyrgyzstan security expert, August 2020.Hide Footnote

Reversing the stereotyping that informs poor and harmful policy is also important. Governments, UN bodies and WPS advocates alike should take a more nuanced view of how men, women and children suffer from and are implicated in militancy and violence, factoring in women’s involvement and the coercion and violence suffered by men. Recalibrating along these lines will produce more effective demobilisation and reintegration for women, mitigate abuses of men and teenage boys, and reduce the likelihood of families being separated to the detriment of all their members. Concretely, governments that already make efforts to include women in rehabilitation and demobilisation programs should do more, and those that make no such provision for women should start doing so; these programs require state-level organisation and resources, and adding them would lift a significant burden off of civil society groups attempting to fill the gaps.

Other steps would also help. The long overdue creation of civil society units within both the UN Counter-Terrorism Executive Directorate and the UN Office of Counter-Terrorism, the UN Secretariat’s principal coordinating body for its counter-terrorism and CVE work, would give women activists a platform to relay concerns. The UN should also include civil society in discussions of its Global Counter-Terrorism Strategy and reviews.[fn]See “Enhancing Civil Society Engagement”, Global Center on Cooperative Security, July 2020; Alastair Millar, “Blue Sky IV: Clouds Dispersing?”, Global Center on Cooperative Security, May 2018.Hide Footnote Member states, especially prominent WPS advocates, should agree to start publicly opening up all parts of their UN assessments of states’ adherence to Security Council counter-terrorism resolutions, which include recommendations on integrating WPS and gender considerations in national counter-terrorism efforts.[fn]UNSC Resolution 2395 (2017) directed the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee Executive Directorate to make country assessments public, except when assessed member states request selected information stay confidential. The UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism has also stressed the importance of fuller transparency in these assessments. In practice, many member states request parts of their assessments to be withheld, very often human rights-related aspects. If some states, especially those with explicit WPS envoys and portfolios, led the way in opening up the full breadth of assessments, it would set an important precedent and ideally encourage more countries to do the same. Crisis Group interview, UN official, November 2020. Fionnuala Ni Aolain, “The Necessity of Enforcing Humanitarian Law and Human Rights in the Context of Counter-Terrorism”, Just Security, October 2020.Hide Footnote Together, these steps would lead to greater inclusion of women’s civil society in UN policymaking. 

VIII. Conclusion

Involving women in crafting and reforming security policies, ensuring that laws and strategies meet women’s specific needs and protecting them during war and its aftermath are essential, both to stabilising volatile societies and advancing gender equality. In principle, integrating WPS aims into CVE work should help do so. In practice, however, involving women’s groups in CVE has skewed their work away from local priorities, aligned them with governments and security forces in ways that endanger them, often proven ineffective and frequently involved gender stereotypes and hackneyed notions of women’s engagement with violence. 

On the twentieth anniversary of Resolution 1325, it is time for a change. Donors and governments should research how their CVE work affects women and find ways to reduce any harm that may arise, listen to women’s groups and civil society, respect their priorities, adjust funding to accommodate them and discard the stereotyped thinking about women that informs so many neglectful and harmful policies. These steps alone may not secure for 1325 the smooth global implementation its crafters envisioned, given that the agenda faces wider and more intractable problems. But it would keep women activists and peacebuilders safer on the ground, and in a more equitable rapport with donors.

London/Brussels, 9 December 2020