The helplessness pours out of a crying mother in India, so silenced by patriarchal traditions that she’s afraid to speak up about the risk that her son might be drawn to radicalism. Continents away in Nigeria, police officers are ashamed to admit the poor working conditions that weaken their ability and motivation to protect their communities. The seemingly disparate scenes are elements of the same puzzle – how to combat violent extremism. And in both countries, local women activists are putting the pieces together.

group picture

Archana Kapoor, a filmmaker, activist and founder of a community radio station in India, tells the story of the mother from Mewat, a poor, rural area about 45 miles (70 km) south of the capital New Delhi. Many women there don’t have much freedom or authority, much less their own phones, bank accounts or other tools of independence. Kapoor helped establish a series of “Mothers Schools” to support and train women in expressing their concerns about the effect of radicalization in their communities and families.

“She said, `Who will listen to me? I’ve never been allowed to speak,’” says Kapoor, whose radio station has won three national awards in its four years of operation and who launched a broadcast called “Mothers on Air” to give women a platform. “She just started crying. She said in all her years, her father told her to shut up because she’s a woman … then her brother, then her husband and now her son. She had never had a voice. The radio gave her a voice, and the confidence to speak on the radio came from the Mothers School.”

In the state capital of Jos in northern Nigeria, Christian Missions Pastor Esther Ibanga nurtures ties between local citizens and police usually better known for their corruption. So when the militant group Boko Haram kidnapped hundreds of young girls a year ago, police actually guarded a protest march that she organized with a consortium of organizations. They included her own, Women Without Walls Initiative, which connects women across religious, tribal and ethnic lines to address the conflict that had gone on for decades.

“The police have not had a good reputation in my state, as in most countries. They are looked at with suspicion, they are extremely corrupt, nobody wants to have anything to do with them,” Ibanga explains. “To have Nigerian police and women as well in one place was unheard of.”

Kapoor and Ibanga this month joined 9 other women from India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Kenya and Indonesia and a man from Tanzania to compare notes on community approaches to countering violent extremism during a three-day symposium at the U.S. Institute of Peace. Each of these activists has been working on one of two pilot projects funded by the U.S. State Department: USIP’s Women Preventing Extremist Violence (WPEV), which helped connect women activists with police in their communities and policymakers at the national level; and Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE) by Vienna-based Women Without Borders, a project that establishes the “Mothers Schools” to give women the confidence, skills and outlets to speak up against radical influences in their communities.

'Broader Global Agenda'

Interest in countering violent extremism has heightened with the spreading carnage by groups such as Boko Haram in Nigeria, the so-called “Islamic State” in Iraq and Syria and Buddhist monks in Burma. The issue got top billing in the U.S. last month as President Barack Obama convened his White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism.

Community-led initiatives “have much to contribute to the broader global agenda,” said Kathleen Kuehnast, director of USIP’s Center for Gender and Peacebuilding, during a public discussion that capped the three-day symposium.

The idea of involving women and others at the community level in countering radicalization is finally winning support from a wide range of officials as well as political and military leaders, said Edit Schlaffer, founder and executive director of Women Without Borders.

“It was always considered something touchy-feely, too soft,” Schlaffer said during a discussion earlier in the symposium with Sarah Sewall, U.S. undersecretary of state for civilian security, democracy and human rights. Sewall, the former director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, wanted to hear from the group of women about what strategies work and should be supported in the future.

The White House summit’s involvement of civil society organizations in high-level discussions was “a breakthrough moment for us as civil society to get this confirmation and this endorsement,” Schlaffer said. “We’re talking big strategies now.”

Strengthening the role of women in traditional societies also means bringing men into the conversation to address how the ascribed norms of men and masculine identities contribute to -- and may even help mitigate -- violent conflict. Omar Mattar Tajir, the chief executive officer of Zanzibar Youth Education, Environment and Development Support Association (ZAYEDESA) in in Tanzania, established Mothers Schools under the SAVE project and says there’s also a desperate need for a Fathers School to build support among men for women and girls and for improving skills in preventing radicalization of youths. The Mothers Schools were established in the wake of attacks by radicals on clerics and imams and violent youth protests in the streets of Stone Town, according to Women Without Borders.

“The idea of including fathers is critical as well,” Tajir said in an interview on the sidelines of the symposium. “The system of our society is patriarchal, and the role of the father cannot be underestimated. The mothers and fathers must work together in preventing radicalization.”

In Kenya, women activists are taking the issues of violent extremism to the national level. In the aftermath of the attack by the Somali al-Shabab Islamic militant group on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in 2013, Somalis in Kenya felt the backlash with the Kenyan government’s “Operation Sanitization,” said Fauziya Abdi, a consultant to USIP as well as for a British research organization and a European Union program in the Horn of Africa.  Conversely, after al-Shabab killed 28 non-Muslim passengers, including 22 teachers in the November 2014 hijacking of a bus in the town of Mandera near the Somali border, Kenyan teachers in the area refused to return to work for fear of attacks.

Mothers of Al-Shabab Recruits

Under USIP’s Women Preventing Extremist Violence program, Abdi helped bring together representatives of 12 organizations working to counter trends towards radicalization into a consortium called Sisters Without Borders.

“They have been doing a lot of community work,” including with mothers and young people, Abdi told Sewall. Sureya Roble-Hersi, who supports rural women as national vice chairperson of the Maendeleo Ye Wanawake Organization in Kenya, said the Sisters consortium’s biggest achievement is persuading mothers of sons recruited into al-Shabab to speak out.

“There has been a lot of fear that if the women come out and speak openly, then they will be targeted by the security forces,” Roble-Hersi said. “Some of them have not even reported that their sons are missing.”

But national-level policies also are lacking, said Abdi. The Kenyan Prevention of Terrorism Act, for example, doesn’t address those who are forced to join extremist groups, she said. So the consortium wrote a letter to the Kenya Women Parliamentary Association asking for a meeting to discuss the challenges of violent extremism. The activists pressed the lawmakers to do more to address the economic factors that drive youth toward radical groups, improve conditions for police officers that communities depend on to provide security and call for teachers to return to work after the Mandera bus attack.

“Engaging at different levels is very important,” Abdi said. “On the economic front, in particular the private sector, when there is a terrorist attack, it affects businesses … [and] it goes all the way down to the household level.”

Back in Nigeria, the efforts of women activists in the USIP project to connect citizens more constructively with police worked in part because the women had experience in mobilizing their communities. On the police side, they identified officers who had “a very unique combination of humility, commitment to service and influence,” said Georgia Holmer, interim director of USIP’s Rule of Law Center. “Each of those elements on their own doesn’t quite get you there, but they were willing to be very open and humble and honest about the challenges that the police face.”

They told stories of horrid living conditions and of having to provide their own supplies and make their own uniforms, humiliations that citizens rarely considered when depending on security forces for protection. The openness helped build mutual trust with the women activists and their communities in a way likely to last longer than top-down attempts at enforcing standards.

“The competence and confidence of women” can help “establish a sustainable security platform,” Schlaffer said of longer-term prevention efforts. “We have to be part of a new security architecture, and we identified the missing building block, and that is women.”

Viola Gienger is a senior writer at USIP.

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