Reinserting the ‘Agent’ Back in Agency: Preserving Women’s Voices and Diversity in CVE

December 29, 2020

This blog is part of a series of articles written by Georgetown University graduate students enrolled in a Gender and Terrorism Course, published as part of Counterpart’s Next Generation in Thought Leadership initiative. The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not express the views or opinions of Counterpart International.

Strengthening women’s ‘agency’ is largely recognized as a twin objective of countering violent extremism (CVE), and advancing Women, Peace, and Security (WPS) commitments. However, with limited consensus across the U.S. government on the definition of ‘agency,’ and a lack of an integrated approach to strengthening women’s agency in meaningful ways, policymakers and practitioners are left with limited guidance on how to achieve this important national security objective. Consequently, there is a need to better understand how women define their own security needs and those of their communities, along with the challenges and opportunities they face to strengthen their voice in peacebuilding efforts. Only in doing so will CVE policies and programs be truly committed to furthering women’s agency.

Feminist and Qualitative Research
Whenever possible, policy decisions and CVE programs should be rooted in qualitative, feminist research to ensure that our initiatives are women-centered and driven for maximum impact. While quantitative data can be helpful in assessing trends and women’s representation, participatory, qualitative data is a fundamental tool in ensuring women’s individual voices and experiences are informing context-specific approaches. Additionally, feminist research methods center marginalized people within the particular communities being studied. Therefore, incorporating feminist research findings is one way to help ensure the voices of  the LGBTQ+, disabled, elderly, and other commonly silenced communities are shaping policy and practice.

For far too long, quantitative data has stood to represent the needs and capacities of women. However, this information does little to reflect whether or not women are meaningfully participating in CVE interventions or experience barriers to participation not accounted for by top-down gender analyses. Therefore, local knowledge must be highly valued in strengthening women’s agency in terrorism prevention activities.

Policymakers and practitioners must recognize the work being carried out by women in their own communities to conduct such kinds of research and advocate for community-based CVE efforts. As proposed in USIP’s “Charting a New Course: Women Preventing Violent Extremism,” we must “listen to and take guidance from women activists at the front lines of the battle against extremism.” While local partners are often engaged in data collection and CVE implementation, we must ask which populations they represent and whether or not data is centered around those most vulnerable.

Women [and Men] as Independent Actors, Not Instruments
When we draw from individual experiences, we understand women to be diverse in their wants and needs and proponents of diverse intervention techniques. Without this diversity in thought and motivation, women are reduced to singular narratives: as perpetrators of extremist violence, female victims, or instruments of CVE implementation. According to Sophie Giscard d’Estaing’s “Engaging Women in Countering Violent Extremism: Avoiding Instrumentalisation and Furthering Agency,” policymakers tend to view a woman as an “entry point to the private sphere of the home.” In this sense, women are tools in accessing spaces in which policymakers may not previously have had access. One argument for engaging women as mothers, wives, and sisters is based on their ability to reach and positively influence community members who are difficult to approach. For example, Women Without Borders’ MothersSchools Program focuses on “introducing and normalising the idea of mothers as the first line of defence against extremism in their homes and communities.” In this model, women are taught to recognize early warning signs of radicalization, and they are provided with tools to counter message terrorist organizations.

At best, CVE programs that instrumentalize gender such as MothersSchools empower women and lead them to feel a sense of agency over their personal and local security. At worst, these programs shift the responsibility for radicalized children onto women and mothers. While the burdening of women to ‘civilize’ or ‘uplift’ the men of their communities is not new and traces back to colonial and contemporary development practices, it has been reframed within CVE efforts as a form of women’s empowerment. However, in targeting women for their relation to male family members (as mothers, wives, and sisters), programs and policies have the potential to reduce women to caretakers and ultimately reinforce the very gender roles CVE efforts aim to challenge – as others have previously argued.

An Inclusive and Intersectional Approach
To counter this reductionism and responsibilisation of women, their identities must be understood as intersectional. In addition, male community members should be engaged as well and acknowledged as individuals potentially invested in extremist prevention. Taking a gendered approach to CVE and valuing individual agency requires that men’s differing experiences, prevention ideas, and security needs be woven into policy and practice alongside women’s. Therefore, the engagement of males cannot be left out of this conversation.

Overall, supporting female and male agency in CVE policies and programs rests heavily on the valuing and uplifting of community members as independent actors rather than tools of implementation. This can be partially accomplished by drawing from grassroots, qualitative research and shifting toward greater localization. The role of policymakers and practitioners is to support local, women-led CVE efforts, in whatever forms they may take. In adopting this backseat role, maybe we can reinsert the ‘agent’ back in agency.

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