If there has been one common thread shared by extremist movements that have captured the world’s attention in the last year, from northern Nigeria to northern Iraq, Syria to Somalia, and Myanmar to Pakistan, is women being used as a weapon in the war against terrorism and are often seen as a “soft” or an “easier” target in all the nook and corners of the world. There have been various forms of vicious attacks on women and in most of the cases their rights have been violated brutally. There have been horrifying stories of women and girls being traded among fighters, forcibly “married,” forced to convert, and repeatedly raped.
These horrific mass violations are mirrored in the accounts of Nigerian girls who fled from Boko Haram, in the tales of Somali women liberated from the rule of al-Shabab, and in descriptions of life under the Islamist group Ansar al-Din in northern Mali. The common agenda of these extremists groups is invariably to place limits on women’s access to education and health services, restricting their participation in economic and political life, and enforcing the restrictions through terrifying violence.
The truth and the principles about the motivations of terrorists are appealing; if only it were true that, as the saying goes, “what terrorists fear most is educated girls.” But building schools and investing in girls’ education should be long-term investments that are ends in themselves, not knee-jerk reactions to extremist violence. Merely defining the West in contrast to “barbarism” and talking of “rescuing” women fall short at best; at worst, doing so sets women up as symbolic targets for terrorist violence, squeezing them between terror and counterterror.
While extremists place the subordination of women at the forefront of their agenda, however, the promotion of gender equality has been only an afterthought in the international community’s response to extremism. This failure must be remedied. The international community must recognize, as the extremists do, that empowered women are the foundation of resilient and stable communities.
Fifteen years ago the Security Council adopted Resolution 1325 on the importance of women’s participation in all areas of peace and security, including conflict prevention, conflict resolution, and peacebuilding. This milestone was the result of decades of activism culminating in one revolutionary idea — that peace is inextricably linked with equality between men and women. Overwhelming evidence from around the world shows that women’s empowerment is a powerful force for economic growth, social and political stability, and sustainable peace.
Gender equality and women’s participation in the workforce and income generation are linked to higher GDP per capita; equal access to land and other agricultural inputs can increase agricultural productivity and slash world hunger; and involving women in peacebuilding strongly increases the probability that violence will end.
Militarized counterterrorism operations disrupt economic and social activity, and destroy civilian infrastructure — the schools, markets, and medical facilities relied on by women in traditional caring roles. When governments focus resources on expensive military operations, social ministries like health, family services, and education are often the first to face budget cuts. Civilian displacement leaves women and girls vulnerable to sexual and gender-based violence, including, with grim regularity, crimes committed by the security forces supposed to be protecting them.
The failure to prevent these negative impacts constitutes willful negligence. Terrorists are strategic about using women, in increasingly chilling ways. To fight them, we have to move past simplistic assumptions about gender and terror and get serious about helping women and girls who are on this deadly path, as well as their would-be victims.