People that make a difference

Women leading the way

Often cast as passive bystanders, women’s place at the heart of the family and community means that they too can be targets for recruitment, can amplify radical messages and provide support to extremists.

Stop by a cookout organised by the Council of Women Clergy (COWC) in Mombasa, Kenya, and the first thing to hit you are the scents: the fragrant rice of the pilau on the stove, the sharp tang of the mbirimbi cucumber pickle. Then, the voices and laughter of the groups huddled around each pot, as the women chat and chuckle as they slice and stir. Ranging in age from 18 to 80, they hail from different areas and different religious backgrounds. Yet here at the cookout, they are all on the same page – gathering to talk, cook and eat together in a safe space. Conversations often build on what the women have been discussing in the adjacent hall beforehand. During COWC sessions designed to raise awareness of violent extremism, they explore the pull and push factors that enable recruitment and listen to women share stories of how extremism has impacted their lives. “We take a proactive approach to countering VE, to warn that it could happen to any of us and make people aware of the signs,” relays Reverend Jane Jilani, Executive Director at COWC. “When they go back home, they can cascade this information to the other women in their villages.”
In the coast region of Kenya where COWC operates, VE is a shadow looming over the lives of many. For almost 20 years, the region has been wrestling with instability – with women and their children often bearing the brunt of recurring conflict. “Where youths were being used as combatants, the women were suffering because they were losing their sons and husbands to the fighting,” explains Gloria Likhoyi, Deputy Chairperson of the Board at local NGO Coast Interfaith Council of Clerics (CICC), which has partnered with COWC on the project ‘Shrinking the space against violent extremism thriving’ (SAVET). “But at the same time, they were also supporting these violent activities – providing food to family members who were fighting, and giving them encouraging words.” This chimes with understandings of the complex role women can play in addressing VE: while often cast as passive bystanders, women’s place within the family and community means that they too can be targets for recruitment, can amplify radical messages, provide support to extremists or engage in violent acts. At the same time, this central role makes them ideal multipliers for promoting non-violence and civic engagement.

This is why EU-funded Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism (P/CVE) programmes engage directly with women to strengthen their awareness and involvement in prevention work. In addition to the activities of COWC in Kenya, which are supported by the EU through the STRIVE Global GCERF programme, initiatives include UNDP’s work to develop a women’s mediator platform in the Philippines that aims to strengthen the capacities of women working to prevent extremism in their communities. Similarly, the STRIVE Horn of Africa programme helped establish 11 women’s peace committees in Somaliland to raise awareness of VE, providing guidance for women working with law enforcement, and training policewomen on participation in P/CVE work. And at an institutional level, UNDP PROTECT has engaged with the Indonesian government to ensure a substantive gender dimension in the implementation of the country’s National Action Plan on P/CVE – going beyond simple numerical representation and seeking to unlock the potential of women to act as agents of change in their communities.

Returning to Kenya, COWC engages with local women on a number of fronts. As a women-led interfaith group of female clerics, the Council promotes understanding and tolerance in coastal communities through joint actions for sustainable peace and socio-economic development. In the SAVET programme, COWC has been working more closely with vulnerable groups at risk of radicalisation. Whether in group meetings or one-on-one counselling, COWC aims to provide a safe space for these women – many of whom have experienced trauma – to talk about their experiences and develop tools to address the challenges they face. The Council also trains women to be champions in promoting P/CVE strategies for their families and broader communities.

“We can have representation but that’s not enough; we need to have women at the table where decisions are made.”

Reverend Jane Jilani, Executive Director at the Council of Women Clergy

Another key focus is building women’s capacity to support themselves economically; for example, facilitating savings and internal lending communities so that they can borrow and build investments to assure a sustainable livelihood. Even the cookout sessions have an economic slant: as the mbirimbi pickle the women learn to cook can be made from readily available ingredients, they can produce it themselves in the future to sell and generate an income. And these steps towards economic empowerment are complemented by efforts to build capacity of women on the civic stage. COWC promotes women in leadership positions and organises consultative forums with security agents and civil society to give women the ability to advocate for their own needs. “We work in the background to lend a voice to women so they can come into leadership positions,” explains Rev. Jilani. “We can have representation, but that’s not enough. We need to have women at the table where decisions are made.”


Historically, views on women’s role in violent extremism have been reductive.


Therefore, it is necessary to use a gendered perspective when researching violent extremism, which looks at women and men and the impact of gender role expectations on participation in violence.

Research offers more nuanced, evidence-based perspectives. For example:

Like men, women can make active choices

Women have too often been seen as victim to or being swept up by violent extremism. 
However, like men, women also have agency and can act as willing participants in violence and/or supporters of the terrorist cause.

Like men, women can turn to violent extremism for varied reasons. Often, their reasons are the same as men’s.

Root drivers of violent extremism are broadly the same for women and men, but they can

present themselves in different ways to different parts of the population, such as through:

the level of education
the role gender inequality can play

Like men, women can take up different roles in different groups

Sometimes act as trustworthy recruiters

Sometimes fill reproduction and education roles for next generation of recruits

Sometimes act as influencers, enforcers and guards

Sometimes actively engage in violence

A gender lens is necessary to gather evidence for the roles that women and gender equality can play in preventing and countering violent extremism