Women and Countering Violent Extremism

Sarah Sewall
Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights 
Commission on the Status of Women
New York City
March 17, 2016

Thank you Mara Marinaki, Organization for Islamic Cooperation, the UN Counter-Terrorism Committee, and the Global Center on Cooperative Security for hosting today’s event. Good afternoon everyone.

I want to take a step back and recognize that today’s event, and everything we’ve just heard, captures how much the global conversation about terrorism has broadened in the last decade.

Just a few years ago, it would be hard to imagine a state-led conversation about violent extremism and communities, let alone one focused on the role of women.

As many of you know, a catalyst for this shift was last year’s White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, or CVE. The summit emphasized that fighting terrorists militarily was necessary but insufficient to provide a lasting solution. We also needed to prevent people from turning to violent extremism in the first place.

The summit also underscored the critical role of civil society in this preventive approach -- religious and community leaders, youth organizations, and of course, women and girls. Because CVE is centrally focused on communities, it is centrally focused on females.

I want to directly acknowledge concerns I have heard from the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. I recognize that some worry emphasizing women’s empowerment in the context of CVE. They may fear that women’s rights become a tool of security instead of remaining an independent goal in its own right.

I respectfully disagree. Violent extremists are among the greatest threats to the empowerment of women and girls across the globe, not only in the crimes they commit, but in how they can fuel misogyny by exploiting local resistance to gender equality. Violent extremists repress women in both their ideology and their methods of violence.

By contrast, empowered women provide powerful antidotes to violent extremism. They are able to refute extremist narratives and nihilistic visions with independence and authenticity. Societies that respect the rights of all and fully engage the participation of all have no room for violent extremism. So women’s empowerment is not only essential for defeating violent extremism; defeating violent extremism is essential for women’s empowerment. The two go hand-in-hand.

Women have critical contributions to make at every level of our struggle against violent extremism. Of course mothers have a role in detecting radicalization in their families, but the role of women in this fight far transcends that of mother. We need women in uniform to rebuild trust between law enforcement and communities; female corrections officers and counselors to reach out to women inmates on the path to radicalization; and women legislators to shape public policies to address the unique grievances that can drive women to terrorism.

I see CVE as a vital new dimension of the Women, Peace, and Security agenda. It offers women an opportunity to reframe their rights and roles as part of the most salient international security effort of the 21st century. And in reality, CVE is a feminist agenda, because it is about inclusion and rights. So let’s seize this opportunity.

The UN Secretary-General’s new Plan of Action enshrines the preventing violent extremism agenda as a universal priority and ushers in a new global architecture that includes national CVE strategies and programs, multilateral platforms, and citizen-led initiatives like the Strong Cities Network and the first-ever Youth Action Agenda to Prevent Violent Extremism.

I urge you to seize this moment -- to get in on the ground floor of this nascent architecture and shape the agenda to ensure that women are involved, and their perspectives incorporated, at every level.

Many in the audience are longtime advocates for the role of civil society, and especially women, in matters of peace and security. So what will you do to help ensure that gender is fully integrated in the implementation of the Secretary-General’s new Plan of Action or national strategies? How should UN Women and the Office of the Special Representative for Sexual Violence in Conflict organize themselves to work effectively alongside UN counterterrorism and security bodies? Who will help connect women in sub-national platforms of local officials, young people, and researchers? And who will measure whether and how women are being advanced by -- as well as included in advancing -- the preventing violent extremism agenda?

There is so much opportunity in this CVE agenda that unabashedly combines rights and security. So let us work together to ensure that as the international community charts a new path against violent extremism, women help set the course. Thank you.