To Fight Violent Extremism, Security Sector Must Include More Women

In order to tackle violent extremism, women must be better represented in the security sector – including at the highest levels, says Camilla Bognoe of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Written by Camilla Bognoe Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes
Policewomen in Marseille, France. To counter violent extremism, security forces need more women in their ranks, says Camilla Bognoe of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.Boris Horvat / AFP

At a seminar on foreign terrorist fighters I attended in Venice in 2016, a senior government official stated without hesitation that “women give birth and life – it is unnatural for them to be involved in taking life.” The implied message was that women and girls who are involved in politically motivated violence are either manipulated victims or just mentally unstable.

This common stereotyping acutely compromises the capacity of security bodies to prevent and counter violent extremism. Because of simplified and superficial conclusions, we risk missing opportunities to address the violent radicalization of women and girls.

Women have been involved in the full spectrum of violent extremism for decades, if not longer. Thus, governments cannot continue to respond to violent extremism with the presumption that it is a solely male phenomenon. To ensure a comprehensive approach to violent extremism from government agencies, we therefore need to look beyond the inclusion of women in “soft” security roles and start implementing U.N. Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1325 on Women, Peace and Security (2000) and its follow-up UNSCR 2242 (2015), which highlights women’s roles in countering violent extremism (CVE).

The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) has been compiling good practices in this field to assist governments in effectively integrating gender into CVE policies and measures. The OSCE is thus now working systematically to encourage the integration of gender aspects into technical and policy responses to violent extremism among operational law enforcement agencies and other government entities. These efforts also extend to policymakers, since they increasingly expect women in civil society to take an active role in preventing and countering violent extremism, meaning that policymakers must also mitigate the risk of equating women and the gender equality agenda with a security agenda.

With growing acknowledgement of the advantages of including women in CVE, the discussion needs to be broadened to include the role of women as providers of security in government agencies. When security bodies fail to achieve gender balance and gender sensitivity in their own ranks, it compromises the credibility of the authorities’ intentions to safeguard women’s security and rights. UNSCR 2242 calls for “the greater integration by member states and the United Nations of their agendas on women, peace and security, counter-terrorism and countering-violent extremism which can be conducive to terrorism” as well as women’s “participation and leadership in developing strategies on countering conditions conducive to terrorism.” By promoting gender mainstreaming and increasing the number of women in the security sector in general, and in roles related to CVE in particular, the sector increases its operational capacity.

Realizing the Full Human Resource Potential of Law Enforcement

The OSCE’s conclusions are clear: A security sector that overlooks half of the population cannot be efficient, nor can it be particularly effective in promoting and protecting human rights.

Women need to be present not only as civil society actors, but as counter-terrorism professionals in front-line policing and on all levels of decision-making in the security sector. CVE policies that have a limited gender awareness framework and refer to women exclusively as concerned family members perpetuate the idea that women’s involvement in CVE is defined by their relationship to (usually) male figures.

In many countries, the police struggle with a trust deficit due to corruption, lack of accountability and inadequate representation of the population it is mandated to protect. Increasing the number of women in the police will allow for a more multidimensional approach to women in CVE, which can only engender more trust. If we are serious about involving women as CVE stakeholders in community engagement, we need to also ensure that women have equal access to the police, which can be helped by ensuring a gender-balanced police working in local communities.

Diversifying the police response further contributes to building trust in authorities’ intentions to address women and girls’ concerns and experiences, and not to put them at risk by utilizing them for a security agenda.

Terrorism and violent extremism are highly gendered phenomena that affect women and men differently, and in order to fully capitalize on human resources in responding to this phenomenon, law enforcement agencies need meaningful inclusion that utilizes the differential know-how of men and women.

Superintendents Kim Hiorth and Therese Lutnas from the Oslo Police District in Norway are successfully applying a gender-sensitive and long-term community policing strategy to forge relationships with women and men in neighborhoods that, for a number of reasons, had low confidence in the police’s ability to safeguard the community. Rather than a standalone “women-focused” effort, they have an integrated approach, which aims to build connections with as many people in the community as possible.

Likewise, the nonprofit organization Inclusive Security assesses that policewomen are able get access to parts of the population that men are not. In situations where the police have limited access to the female population due to cultural norms or lack of trust, a more diverse police will greatly help to facilitate communication.

Capacity-building of law enforcement in CVE is currently falling short of ensuring a diversified response that facilitates better dialogue with all communities. Authorities should adopt strategies for recruiting more policewomen and, crucially, give them opportunities for promotion and decision-making. If governments are only responsive and accountable to a portion of the population, vulnerability to security threats will increase in excluded groups.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Women & Girls.

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