by Anthony Aslou

As evidenced by the tactics of kidnapping and sexual slavery used by ISIS and Boko Haram, women face tremendous difficulties across conflict zones, where they are continuously subjected to adverse conditions and dangerous situations. Terrorism may have no face, but it can certainly target a specific group. As a demographic, women are more vulnerable than men to physical and emotional abuse and blackmail in conflict-affected areas. Maria Cristina Perceval, the Permanent Representative of Argentina to the United Nations, articulated this when she explained that “the Security Council recognizes that refugee and internally displaced women and girls are at heightened risk of being subject to various forms of human rights violations and abuses.” However, women’s position of heightened risk does not diminish the fact that they are also singularly qualified to counteract terrorist agendas.

Counter-terrorism policies will not be successful or sustainable unless they include gender-sensitive initiatives that enable women to create societal change. The key to countering violent extremism is empowering and educating women and children, two factors that are nearly impossible while the security and safety of women in conflict zones is threatened. Both Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Executive Director of UNWOMEN, and Radhika Coomaraswamy, lead author of the UN Secretary-General’s Global Study on Women, Peace and Security, agree that “the struggle against extremism should not be treated as an entirely, or even, predominantly military exercise.” The international community will need to start placing more of its focus on building stable societies that can counter terrorism from the inside, rather than from the outside through only military means.

Conflict breeds conditions that perpetuate cycles of violence that refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) deal with on a daily basis. In 2015, Hanaa Edwar, Secretary-General of the Iraqi Al-Amal Association and founder of the Iraqi Women’s Network, informed members of the United Nations Counter-terrorism Committee (CTC) that Yazidi women and girls, who were abducted by ISIS, “were assaulted in practices reminiscent of practices in previous eras of history, such as the sale of women into sexual slavery, rape, torture, murder, not to mention the psychological violence of humiliation, threats, and forcing them to convert to Islam.”

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees’ (UNHCR) report, Syrian women who head their households alone account for more than 145,000 Syrian refugee households, a quarter of the total number. Before the Syrian Civil War, these women relied on their husbands to protect and financially support their families; however, hostilities have now forced many of these women to fend for themselves and become the main breadwinners. Furthermore, the report highlights that women attributed their experiences of harassment or exploitation to the fact that “they were living without an adult male,” who would typically provide protection and security for their wives and families.  Desperate conditions in refugee camps lead to desperate agreements, such as child marriages and even human trafficking. But, no matter how difficult the situation has become, there still remains hope to improve the lives of women and children living in these camps, for doing so will only strengthen future counter-terrorism strategies.

More must be done in order to combat both the violent conditions that women face throughout conflict zones, as well as gender inequality at the societal level, which will only aid in the efforts to combat violent extremism at large. The international community must uphold the tenets of international peace and security it espouses. It must start taking this issue more seriously and either begin or continue implementing the recommendations put forth by UN Security Council Resolution 1325, which proposes greater participation from women in the areas of peace and security, calls on countries to protect women against gender-based violence during armed conflicts, and prioritizes the needs of women and children during international crises (e.g. conditions of women living in refugee camps), among other recommendations.

The prevailing political climate affords several excellent opportunities for the international community to put women at the fore, empowering them to take charge of their communities. As women become more independent, they challenge the traditional gender-based relationships where gender-based violence is the norm. Women and girls’ education is a matter of international security. The international community will begin to see improvements in the stability of families, local communities, and countries for years to come. Eventually, stability on these fronts will counteract the influences of terrorist organizations across conflict zones.

The international community must also focus on improving the level of women’s participation in society at-large. The inclusion of women has been proven to aid security and peace-building efforts. Women can be agents in securing peace and stability in conflict-affected areas. The Center on Global Counterterrorism Cooperation asserts that “women can be powerful preventers and participate in innovative efforts…to mitigate the effects of conflict and violent radicalization.” International organizations and agencies have published numerous reports on the subject, providing evidence that shows the positive effects of gender equality and empowerment, proving time and time again that these lead to positive economic, social, and political conditions across the board.

Making strides against the radical ideologies and violent extremist narratives employed by terrorist organizations will require the international community to make gender equality and the empowerment of women a top counter-terrorism priority. Without the inclusion of women, any future strategies to counteract violent extremism will not deliver positive, long-term results.

Author Bio: Anthony Aslou is currently finishing his Master’s degree in International Security at the Paris School of International Affairs at Sciences Po. He obtained his Bachelor of Arts in International Affairs with honours from the University of Central Florida. He is a Lebanese-American, and has lived and studied in both Lebanon and Jordan. Anthony is interested in the role of identity within minority communities living in the West, counter-terrorism, and how to amend counter-terrorism strategies to better combat the growing presence of radical jihadist groups while countering violent extremism