When, in June 2012, the wife of al-Qaida chief Ayman al-Zawahiri called on Muslim mothers to raise their children to support violent extremism, Somali women’s groups issued a public condemnation.
“Mothers and guardians responsible for the upbringing of children should raise them on love and compassion that counter the roots of radicalism,” Somali children’s rights activist Anab Mohamed Omar said at the time. “They should protect children from misguided concepts. They should also strictly confront the advocates of terrorism and the al-Qaida ideology that encourages the bloodletting of the innocent.”
Despite a history of marginalization in Somalia, women have always played a key role in influencing ideas and ways of life. Whether they are community leaders or wives and mothers speaking to their husbands and sons, they are often outspoken – and able to hold sway. But until recently they have largely been left out of security- and peace-building programs.
This month, that policy looks set to be reversed when several major donors and U.N. agencies working in Somalia meet on May 18 in Nairobi, the capital of neighboring Kenya, to discuss ways in which women can be pushed to the front of the security agenda.
“Everyone has always known Somali women are strong and vocal, but their involvement hasn’t been seen as fundamental to drive the peace process forward until now,” said Caroline Rusten, country program officer for U.N. Women in Somalia. “We want to encourage a much more nuanced approach to women that recognizes their role both as perpetrators and victims of violence and agents of peace and reconciliation.”
The roundtable discussion, attended by several major Western donors, will be used to draw up a draft document that will pave the way for a major joint program that could be launched as early as January next year.
The document will likely include suggestions for projects targeting women, such as training for mothers on how to respond and react to children when they express radical thoughts and opinions. It’s also expected to include a call for more research into women’s involvement in radical movements.
“We know very little about the extent [to which] women are involved in violent extremism, which is one of the reasons for holding the discussions,” Rusten said.
The proposal for a joint program has been backed by several leading Somali civil society groups and political leaders. Last month a meeting was held in the capital Mogadishu to lobby for a national strategy on countering violent extremism that includes women.
“For the strategy to be a Somali-owned, Somali-led process, it is imperative that women have a major role in drafting of the national strategy,” former minister for information Abdirahman Omar Osman said in a speech. “Women are best placed to confront all the root causes of violent extremism, such as injustice, grievances, lack of job opportunities and many more.”
Recent research suggests recruitment to radical groups in Somalia and other parts of the Horn of Africa is on the increase.
“Unfortunately the threat is going up,” said Martine Zeuthen, a Danish anthropologist who is heading an E.U.-funded countering violent extremism program across the Horn of Africa. “Recruitment to [the Islamic extremist group] al-Shabaab in Kenya and Somalia is still happening. Global-looking groups such as [ISIS] and al-Qaida are simultaneously gaining recruits, not just in rural places but also urban areas.”
The two million euro (US$2.2 million) project, funded by the E.U., was launched in response to the terror attack on the upmarket Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi on September 21, 2013, in which 64 people were killed by gunmen affiliated to al-Shabaab. Much of the funding has been put toward research and pilot projects testing ideas for countering violent extremism that could be rolled out on a bigger scale.
Zeuthen said they, too, have been studying the role women play in extremist groups.
“We’ve been trying to understand … who are they close to? Are they instigators of violence? What is their role and how does it play out? Are they cooks, wives, messengers or active fighters?”
The results of the E.U. pilot are due to be published later this year. However, Zeuthen warned that an overemphasis on women and their importance to countering violent extremism could also be counterproductive.
“We have to be clear on what we’re going to achieve and if we’re working with very male-oriented groups with a very conservative outlook we might have to reduce our expectations that women are going to be respected or listened to,” she said. “The closer you get to the people who are joining al-Shabaab, the less receptive they are to the idea women could have an influence or play a role.