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Within recent years, there has been an increase in the number of women and girls joining violent extremist groups globally, which has posed a threat to international security. The involvement of women and girls in violent extremist movements has long existed however, it tends to be underestimated or underexplored. This has been mainly due to the misconception that violent extremism is carried out by men, while women or girls are seen as victims. Women and girls have not only been victims of violence but have also been perpetrators, sympathisers and recruiters of violent extremist groups, particularly the Violent  Islamic Extremists groups.

Among several complex factors that have led them to join violent extremist groups has been the search for socio-economic empowerment. The search for empowerment has been due to patriarchal structures in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world that privilege men and marginalise women socio-economic and political status. Women tend to be marginalised in access to labor markets, resource allocation within marriage patterns, as well as restricted in access to education, and power in political decision-making. Consequently, the limited access to resources has reduced their income-generating opportunities, and limited their capacity to security of livelihoods. This has therefore, led to high levels of feminisation of poverty and resulted in women joining violent extremist groups in order to improve their socio-economic and political status.

Another factor that has motivated women to join violent extremist groups has been due to Gender-Based Violence (GBV) that is normally embedded within patriarchal ideologies of control and subordination of women and girls. GBV associated with rape, domestic assault or sexual assault has motivated women and girls to join the violent extremist groups and become suicide bombers in order to regain ‘honour’ due to the personal trauma associated with GBV. Within some sub-Saharan African countries women that have been raped are often blamed for sexual violence and fear retribution from the community, especially if children resulted from the sexual abuse, hence in order to regain ‘honour’ they become suicide bombers. Gender inequality has therefore, represented a form of structural marginalization that exploits gender roles and leads to different possibilities for personal development between men and women. This results in widespread grievances by women and has led to their involvement in violent extremism with the aim of structural change.

To date, most research that has been carried out on the motives (push and pull factors) of women joining violent extremist groups has focused on women from Western or European countries. Few if any studies have attempted to find out the main driving force of women joining violent extremist groups in sub-Saharan Africa. Within the sub-Saharan African region there is an emerging trend of women and girls being involved in suicide attacks particularly, in Eastern and Western Africa. Among complex factors that have led to them joining violent extremist groups in the region has been due to traditional or cultural norms that restrict women from taking full participation in the public and private spheres in their communities. In most African states cultural norms that are discriminatory towards women and girls have been worsened by colonial policies in the nineteenth century that institutionalized gender inequality through reinforcing and codifying customary law through traditional African chiefs or elders. Resultantly, the customary law has condoned gender-differential in terms of unequal access to land markets and education. Furthermore, social and cultural norms tend to condone GBV as a private issue that can be solved at a household or community level without involving state institutions. In the post-colonial era, a continuation of discriminatory practices towards women has been seen through African states with dual systems of common law and customary law. Common law continues to recognize the use of customary law without resolving the tension between customary law norms and human rights provisions,  which has made women vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups. The rise of neo-liberal policies in developed and developing countries have further worsened the situation for women by widening the gender gap and limiting government expenditure on basic social safety nets that are needed to provide services to the poor particularly, women in rural communities.

Violent Islamic Extremist groups such as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, Boko Haram and Al-Shabab,  in sub-Saharan Africa, have further focused their recruitment efforts on women or girls that have been affected by social alienation at a structural level. The Violent Islamic Extremist groups have taken advantage of women and girls vulnerabilities by promising them illusive social justice or good governance within the terrorist organisations that follow Shariah law interpretations. As of  2015, there have been about  4,000, Western foreign fighters and migrants joining ISIS with over 550 women. ISIS has supposedly enhanced the social status of women through involving women in the state building process of the Caliphate in Syria and Iraq. The building of the Caliphate entails establishing a pseudo state with administrative bureaus that include the military, police, healthcare and education. Women have been incorporated through gender-segregated parallel institution, known as the women’s affairs to address women’s issues. Furthermore, other institutions that include the Al-Khansaa Brigade (Female Police unit) and the Umm al-Rayan have been created by ISIS in Raqqa, Syria to attract female foreign fighters in roles such as combat operations, suicide bombers and propagandists.Within the Al-Khansaa Brigade, women receive a monthly payment between £70 and £100 per month.

Boko Haram in Western Africa has shared similar operational or recruitment tactics to those of  ISIS, which it has pledged allegiance to. Its  (Boko Haram)  Female Wing based in Nigeria has targeted widows and young girls, in dire humanitarian situation by offering them socio-economic empowerment within the organisation. The terrorist organisation appears to have further taken an active lead with women voluntarily joining the extremist groups or some being coerced as suicide bombers. Boko Haram has used female suicide bombers for tactical advantages to support their mission. As of  2014, Boko Haram female suicide bombers have been more than 200, and killed more than 1,000 people in Nigeria and in Cameroon. The female suicide bombers in Boko Haram have further been compared to the Chechen “Black Widows,” in Chechnya who reportedly made up a third of the republic’s suicide bombers. Similarly, Al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia have offered women better opportunities as compared to the traditional roles that they take in their communities. The female jihadists in Kenya and Somalia have been mainly used to provide operational assistance and to recruit members in the diaspora. The female jihadists continue to recruit other women and girls through social media, particularly Facebook and Twitter. Facebook and Twitter have been used to create a sense of community across geographic boundaries as well as romanticize Sharia Law. Female jihadists, unlike male jihadists, have further proven to be difficult to de-radicalise because of the roles that remain unchanged within their communities.

In addressing violent extremism in the region the counter-terrorism community needs to incorporate a  development approach to ensure that the concerns of men and women are equally considered, to the benefit of society as a whole. Most governments often deploy hard-power approaches, such as military force, in dealing with terrorism and fail to establish sustainable solutions in preventing violent extremism and terrorism.Furthermore, it is important that Non-Governmental Organisations (NGOs), particularly women NGOs raise gender and development awareness for conflict prevention to law enforcement bodies. NGOs tend to be co-opted by national security agendas that do not prioritise on women rights issues, which has made women vulnerable to recruitment by violent extremist groups.

In conclusion, violent extremist groups will continue to recruit women by taking advantage of structural inequalities if  African states continue to fail to address the culturally entrenched causes of gender inequality across various social categories. Achieving gender equality through empowering women and girls can be one of the ways to deal with the recruitment of women by violent extremist groups. Additionally, countries need to integrate a gender perspective into legislative and policy frameworks that address terrorism.

Image Credit: Immanuel Afolabi (The Center on Conflict and Development (ConDev) at Texas A&M University)