2.4. Violent Extremism as a Gendered Threat

Chair: Ms Megan Bastick 

Panellists: Ambassador Melanne Verveer; Associate Professor Harald Weilnböck; Dr Alaa Murabit

Rapporteur: Mr Stefan Ott, Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of the Armed Forces

Violent extremism and radicalization are profoundly gendered. For example, ideals of men and women’s proper roles are used to motivate men and women to join extremist groups. Some extremist groups make routine use of sexual violence against women and men, or have executed individuals because of their perceived sexual orientation.

There is increasing recognition that women and girls are joining extremist groups. At the same time, women are recognised as, at times, on the front lines of countering violent extremism (CVE) in their communities. However, in some countries the work of women’s organizations is hampered by counter terrorism measures.

To what extent is gender being considered in CVE policies and strategies?

Security Council Resolution 2242 (2015) urged states to ensure greater coordination with women when developing CVE and counter terrorism strategies, and to consider the impacts of counter terrorism strategies on women. The UN Secretary-General’s Plan of Action to Prevent Violent Extremism identifies gender equality and empowering women as a priority. However, the international community has made only tentative steps in implementing these commitments, and significant work is required to identify best practices.

Respect for and promotion of human rights must be central to prevention of violent extremism (PVE) and CVE policy and approaches. Policies addressing PVE and CVE should have strong linkages with the Women, Peace and Security Agenda, and women’s human rights more broadly. Experiences from including a gender perspective in conflict prevention and resolution should be applied to the development, design, implementation and monitoring of PVE and CVE programs.

What are the opportunities and risks of focusing on women’s roles and women’s rights in CVE?

Women are often the first to recognize early signs of violent extremism, and play a crucial role in its prevention and in countering it. In some contexts the collapse of traditional culture, rather than its resurgence, and the disintegration of local communities lead to radicalization. One sees “radicalization before religion.” Women play a crucial role in recreating a sense of community and building accountability. 

However, a focus on women’s CVE activities may put those women at risk. Likewise, characterizing promotion of gender equality as an element of PVE and CVE may inadvertently undermine women’s rights work. It is crucial that women human rights defenders and civil society groups be supported and protected. Furthermore, women’s rights and gender equality must be promoted as important aims in themselves, not only as far as they contribute to PVE and CVE.

It is necessarily to go beyond considering only women’s roles. Therapeutic experience in de-radicalization suggests that gender inequality and violent masculinities (sexism, homophobia) rather than ideology or religion are at the core of violent extremism. Addressing identity issues may be a promising approach in PVE.

What lessons and good practices can be identified for policymakers and security sector institutions developing gendered approaches to CVE?

Women should be recognized for their active role in communities, and the importance of this in PVE. Women’s organizations at the grassroots level should be consulted and involved, including through institutionalized, mechanisms in developing locally owned PVE and CVE approaches. Local campaigns in Libya led by a women’s organisation demonstrate their potential for success. Protection and support structures for such community organizations and activists must, however, be in place.

The degradation of women’s rights is often an early warning of increased extremism. For example, research in the United Kingdom suggests that radicalization is higher in places where honor killings are more frequent. More work should be done to integrate indicators of violation of women’s rights in early warning frameworks for violence extremism.

Approaches to counter terrorism and CVE have tended to emphasize security responses. In the greater focus on PVE, spaces should be created for dialogue between prevention and security communities of knowledge and practice.


The panel on “violent extremism as a gendered threat” focused on the significant role of women in PVE and CVE, and the importance of gender analysis to understand the drivers of  and conditions under which violent extremism flourishes. The panelists underscored a need for a human rights focused approach, including a holistic understanding of women’s human rights. They warned of the negative effects of the instrumentalization of gender equality and women’s rights in the service of a security-focused approach to violent extremism.

The panel endorsed locally developed approaches to PVE and CVE, sensitive to their specific context, and including structures to protect women and other civil society activists at the grassroots level. There should be a stronger focus on health, education and strong communities as preventing violent extremism, rather than policing and other security-led responses.