To counter extremism, Asia and Europe can empower women and increase their participation


Global Europe


Sabriah Hussin

Member at the Religious Rehabilitation Group Singapore

NurulHuda Yussof

Graduate of Public Policy and Global Affairs at Nanyang Technological University

Women’s role within families and societies is critical in curbing – but also escalating – radicalisation and the spread of violent extremism. Discussions on women’s participation in countering violent extremism need to address two key issues: first, in which area is women’s participation needed or lacking? And second, in which domain can women’s participation bring added value to measures which counter radicalisation and violent extremism?

A striking example of the role of women in escalating terrorism is the case of the Maute Brothers from the Philippines. Their mother, known as Farhana Maute, was key in funding, recruiting and providing logistical support and care for wounded soldiers. A military officer observing the Maute Group realised that the finances of most terrorists are handled by their wives. To continue the financial connections and keep them active even after their husbands were killed in combat, these wives would remarry other fighters. This demonstrates the great capability of women in honing leadership and coordination skills to benefit the cause of terrorists and extremists.

Asia-Europe cooperation on the important issues affecting women can provide a promising opportunity

Yet it is women who are also most at risk. According to Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Gholam Ali Khoshroo, women and girls are the primary victims of large-scale, often systematic, sexual violence. Sexual violence has been a weapon of war since before the Second World War, and it continues to be a tactic employed by terrorist groups to advance their military, economic and ideological goals. The purpose of this strategy is to humiliate, ethnically ‘cleanse’ or silence the targeted community. For example, in the refugee camps sheltering Rohingya refugees, Myanmar forces are reported to have unleashed “a frenzy of sexual violence” against women and girls from the Muslim minority. Poverty-stricken victims of violence are also often forced into prostitution to survive.

Given that terrorism has a huge impact on women and that women can be influential within the ranks of terrorist organisations, it is important to focus on the role of women when drafting counter-terrorism strategies. Dealing with the issue of sexual crimes committed against women must be part of long-term efforts to enable social reconstruction, including transitional justice which includes judicial and non-judicial measures that provide redress for the legacies of massive human rights abuses. Amnesties, trials or purges, the establishment of truth commissions, financial compensations and symbolic gestures are some examples of transitional justice measures.

It is in these areas – women’s empowerment and participation – that Asia and Europe have the potential to collaborate. To counter violent extremism, for example, Asia and Europe can engage and cooperate in developing research on the gender implications of extremism and violence, which can then be used as a reference to develop counter-terrorism policies and strategies that are informed by women’s experiences. Furthermore, collaboration to strengthen women’s economic resilience and increase women’s leadership and participation in preventing the spread of extremism will be vital in the stage of social reconstruction in post-conflict states and communities.

The programmes run by UN Women entitled ‘Women for Peace and Social Cohesion’ in Bangladesh and ‘Empowered Women, Peaceful Communities’ in Indonesia are prime examples of initiatives that can be elevated by Asia-Europe collaboration. The Bangladesh programme involves facilitating linkages with the Women’s Development Forum to mobilise women through community action groups, leadership training and financial inclusion in business development. This programme has thus far been implemented in six districts in Bangladesh and has had 1200 beneficiaries. In the Indonesian programme, a women’s empowerment curriculum is being developed and will be delivered to women’s cooperative groups through 24 weekly sessions that address issues such as financial literacy, economic empowerment, women’s leadership and gender equality.

It is in these areas – women’s empowerment and participation – that Asia and Europe have the potential to collaborate

Asia-Europe collaboration can help elevate these initiatives by expanding the academic partners and rendering operational and financial support to strengthen the initiatives’ frameworks that currently are in the development and implementation stage. These initiatives also have the potential to be replicated across different post-conflict and social reconstruction zones, which can also benefit post-conflict and terror zones in Europe.

To address gendered violence, cross-cultural understanding of women’s experiences in facing violent extremism should be facilitated. Medical care and rehabilitative assistance could be rendered through Asia-Europe collaboration. This collaboration could also focus on developing policies and leveraging on judicial means to ensure that tactics of terror – such as the use of rape as a weapon – are resolutely disabled.

Asia-Europe cooperation on these important issues affecting women can provide a promising opportunity for expanding current platforms and establishing new platforms for women’s empowerment and participation. This in turn could help foster hope and resilience in countering radicalisation and violent extremism among communities in both continents.

This article is from Friends of Europe’s discussion paper ‘My ASEM wishlist: how Asia and Europe should really be working together’, in which we go beyond officialdom and seek out ‘unusual suspects’ – students, teachers, activists, journalists, think tankers, etc. – who consider where they would like the state of Asia-Europe relations to be by 2030 and what the two continents should do to get there.

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