Sexual and gender-based violence is used as a tactic of terrorism

Published 30 November 2017 in:

UN Photo/Amanda Voisard

Sexual and gender-based violence is used as a tactic of terrorism by a range of today’s violent extremist groups. This makes it essential to address violence against women and girls as an integrated part in countering and preventing violent extremism. This is key to Sweden’s feminist foreign policy.

Sexual and gender-based violence related to terror and extremism has enormous consequences for individuals and whole societies. While women and girls suffer unimaginable traumas, the acts of violence also eat away at the fabric that holds communities together, constituting a threat to overall peace and security. The Swedish government therefore works in many ways to deepen the understanding of sexual violence as a tactic of terrorism and to formally recognize victims of sexual violence as victims of terrorism.

The good news is that there is now some momentum in the right direction. The interest in the Prevention of Violent Extremism (PVE) and the link between terrorism and sexual and gender-based violence is growing. Since 2014, the United Nations has intensified its focus on the use of sexual violence as a tactic of terrorism and this year’s report by the Secretary General on conflict-related sexual violence builds a case for making women’s protection and empowerment central to counter-terrorism strategies, which have traditionally been gender-blind. Moreover, last year OECD revised its official development assistance guidelines so that PVE-activities can be classified as meeting development targets.

As a natural part of its feminist foreign policy, all Sweden’s PVE-engagements have a gendered analysis and programming as a central component. As a non-permanent member of the Security Council, Sweden works hard to highlight the rights and needs of women in the counter-terrorism and PVE-agenda. Across Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, Sweden seeks to engage women’s leadership and incorporate gender into policies and strategies for preventing and countering violent extremism and terrorism. Sweden also supports the International Criminal Court, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and partner countries in their efforts to counter impunity against terror-related sexual and gender-based violence and to promote the integration of a gender perspective at all stages in the work against radicalisation and violent extremism.

Another aspect of addressing the issue of terror-related sexual and gender-based violence is highlighting the underappreciated role of women as agents of prevention and as key interlocutors for early prevention. The Women’s Alliance for Security Leadership (WASL) conducted a study that showed that women’s rights groups tended to be the very first to warn about signs of rising violent extremism and sexual and gender-based violence.

With so many actors now engaging in PVE-work it is absolutely critical that the field is infused by gender-sensitive thinking. Women’s participation in prevention, counter-terrorism and peace building efforts is necessary for reaching successful and sustainable outcomes. Women have the potential to play significant roles in challenging extremist narratives. The international community needs to ensure that they are equipped to do so.
In some cases what is required are targeted actions that are specific to a certain group. Radicalization tends to be local and any response, similarly, needs to be anchored in the particular geographic and gendered context. Women victims of terrorism and extremist gender-based violence will, for example, often require different services and support than their male counterparts.

In a broader sense, however, the long-term struggle against violent extremism and terrorism and its violent consequences for women and girls is best fought by deepening our development engagements for women’s empowerment. Empowering women and girls is an essential component in building peaceful communities. Peaceful communities, in turn, are less susceptible to the threat of violent radicalization.

The link between rising extremism and violent targeting of women and girls is clear. Sweden’s focus on a more comprehensive approach to countering and preventing violent extremism may not seem to be a radical one. But the global anti-terrorism debate pushes hard in a different direction and in the process we risk getting the balance wrong between punitive counter terrorism actions and policies seeking to tackle the underlying conditions that terrorists exploit. Democracy, rule of law and the empowerment of women do not automatically make societies immune to the problem, but it builds a deeper resilience in a way that repressive tactics never can.