Why Women Leaders are Essential to the Continued Fight Against ISIS

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A woman holds up a banner that reads "I *heart* Iraq," while surrounded by a large crowd of joyful people celebrating
Iraqis celebrate in Tahrir Square as they wait for the final announcement of the defeat of ISIS at Mosul in July 2017

Why Women Leaders are Essential to the Continued Fight Against ISIS

ISIS has lost 90 percent of the territory it controlled in Iraq in August 2014, and at least 58 percent in Syria, with the liberation of Mosul this summer marking a milestone in the fight to defeat the Islamic State. As ISIS retreats, women’s leadership is more important than ever in building long-term security for Iraq and Syria, free from ISIS and violent extremism.

The National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security affirms that peace is best achieved when men and women are equal partners in resolving conflict and investing in stability.  Applying these same principles to countering violent extremism, especially in Iraq and Syria, is essential to success, and requires acknowledging the diverse experiences of men, women, boys, and girls who can be victims of terrorist violence, supporters of its ideology, or leaders in countering it.

Several factors can favor the rise of violent extremism; just as the drivers of violent radicalization vary, so do the experiences of men and women with violent extremist groups such as ISIS.  Women, often considered only as victims and survivors of violence, may likewise be recruiters or operatives of violent extremism; they are also local peacebuilders and civil society activists. By understanding the roles women and girls play in violent extremism, and how they can counter it, global efforts to promote security and prevent terrorism will be more successful.

The U.S. government has mobilized global, regional, and local action involving governments and NGOs to address violent extremism, including programming that engages women as key stakeholders.  Women can act as the first line of defense in detecting signs of radicalization to violence in their families or communities.  More broadly, women have mobilized action as faith leaders and businesswomen, and promoted peace as civil society advocates and as mothers. 

In July, the United States hosted the Global Coalition to Defeat ISIS in Washington to discuss best practices, insights, and coordination in the continuing fight against ISIS.  Over 340 government and military officials from Coalition countries gathered to discuss the threats ISIS pose to women and children, the various roles women can play in enabling ISIS violence, and women’s leadership in building peace.  The meeting reflected the growing action in the fight to defeat ISIS, by highlighting women’s roles in building peace in Iraq and Syria. 

The Department of State remains committed to engaging women leaders as they take steps to root out violent extremism. It has supported the creation of networks of women peacebuilders to share their experiences countering violent extremism in their communities.  Programs sponsored by State and others have sought to increase mothers’ ability to identify violent radicalization risks in their families, promote women’s influence in civil society, and build their relationship with law enforcement. Furthermore, the Department of State is supporting governments in implementing their own national strategies that formalize gender perspectives into their countering violent extremism efforts.

In the global fight against ISIS and violent extremism, we cannot afford to ignore or exclude half of the population- women and girls.  Supporting women’s involvement in peacebuilding and decision making closes strategic gaps in countering violent extremism and building long-term stability. The international community has more work to do in making this a reality, because effective inclusion of women as agents of peace and security takes a global commitment. The United States considers gender in its policy response to violent extremism. It’s time for all of us to support women as CVE leaders. 

About the Author: Christina Gay is an Intern in the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues at the U.S. Department of State.

Editor's Note: This entry also appears in the U.S. Department of State's publication on Medium.com.