Expanding educational opportunities for women and girls around the world advances American and international security interests and should be part of a long-term strategy to prevent violent extremism, said Kathleen Kuehnast, director of the Center for Gender and Peacebuilding at the U.S. Institute of Peace, in a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

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The panel heard testimony from Kuehnast and two other experts on April 3 to consider the role of educating girls and women to promote development and counter radicalism.

“The U.S. National Intelligence Council’s Global Trends 2025 report highlights women as agents of geopolitical change,” Kuehnast told the committee. She cited the report’s statement that, “economic and political empowerment of women could transform the global landscape over the next 20 years.”

Pakistan has the world’s second-highest number of children not attending school, and almost half of girls in rural areas have never attended school, according to United Nations statistics in a 2012 report cited in separate legislation that the committee was considering. A 2004 report by the Council on Foreign Relations referenced World Bank findings from a 100-country study that increasing the proportion of women with a secondary education by 1 percent boosts annual growth in income per capita by 0.3 percentage points.

Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a California Republican, spoke of a school for girls that he visited in the northwest of Pakistan. He learned later that the school was destroyed by the Taliban.

“That should tell us all we need to know – that education is a key counter to this destructive ideology,” Royce said.

“The time is right to elevate the conversation on women’s role in civil society and countering violent extremism,” said Representative Bill Keating of Massachusetts, who was serving as the top Democrat on the committee for the hearing in the absence of Representative Eliot Engel of New York.

The U.S. National Action Plan on Women, Peace and Security, which requires branches of the U.S. government to protect women and girls in conflict zones and integrate women into security policy decision-making, includes promoting the role of a community’s women in early-warning and response to prevent conflicts, Kuehnast said in the House hearing. 

“It is clear that there is a high demand by women for knowledge and skills to prevent violent extremism,” Kuehnast said. She highlighted a USIP pilot project in Nigeria that emphasizes the importance of women’s roles in their communities and in their homes. In one area, Nigerian women religious leaders, both Christian and Muslim, have used the training they’ve received to mentor and counsel vulnerable youths.

While mothers might be the first to recognize signs that their children are becoming more radical,  Kuehnast noted that they may not understand the process or what to do about it. Kuehnast also submitted written testimony to the committee as part of the proceeding.

“Women need to be equipped and supported in their efforts to prevent their children from joining extremist groups,” she said.

In Pakistan, USIP has joined with the Institute for Inclusive Security to provide grant funding for the civil society organization PAIMAN Alumni Trust to train mothers and youth to identify signs of extremism and provide support and economic alternatives for young men and boys who have become radicalized.

Another expert who testified, Muflehun Executive Director Humera Khan, said programs to counter violent extremism are needed for women and men to directly address the issue because educational and vocational programs, while essential, aren’t enough in some places. Hedieh MIrahmadi, president of the World Organization for Resource Development and Education (WORDE), told the committee about thousands of women in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan gathering at a local shrine to protest a spike in violence in 2010. The shrine caretaker provided the women with a loudspeaker. The United Nations followed up by supporting similar rallies elsewhere in Afghanistan, she said.

Kuehnast also cited the need to engage men in supporting girls’ education, especially in their roles as fathers, because men are critical change agents, especially in conservative societies. She cited the case of Malala Yousafzai,  the young Pakistani education advocate who was shot in the head by a Taliban militant in October 2012, when she was only 15 years old, in retribution for her work to promote the importance of schooling for girls. The committee was about to consider legislation named in honor of Yousafzai that allots $3 million for the U.S. Agency for International Development to continue awarding at least half of its scholarships in Pakistan to women, as it did in 2013, and to increase the number of awards.

“In the case of the brave Malala Yousafzai, her education was strongly encouraged by a father who understood that girls should be educated for the good of the child and for her country, even in a very conservative society,” Kuehnast noted.

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