By The Carter Center’ s Human Rights Program
On the occasion of the White House Summit on Countering Violent Extremism, and following the Carter Center’s convening of women’s and girls’ human rights defenders from 20 countries for the “Beyond Violence: Women Leading for Peaceful Societies” forum, we advance a call for action now to promote sustainable peace and security, by addressing not only immediate threats but also the underlying drivers of violent extremism and conflict through the advancement of inclusive decision-making processes.
To this end, we urge the Congress to pass the Women, Peace and Security Act, and we ask the President to sign the bill into law as a down payment on a long-term strategy in which the United States supports homegrown peacemakers who resolve local, sectarian, and national conflicts with non-violence and inclusion; it commits us to a path of peace and progress that we fully acknowledge will take time to achieve.
We are seized with the urgency of escalating crises that have filled our societies with fear, that have normalized violence, and provoked short term, short sighted and ineffective responses. Extremism and the efforts to counter extremism have undermined human security, creating a perpetual cycle of violence at all levels. Women are leading by example in communities affected by economic deprivation, discrimination and gross abuses of power, factors that create the environment in which violent conflict and extremism thrive. To achieve real security for all, we must listen to and amplify the voices of those who can develop solutions that will work in their own contexts. Women’s and girls’ lived experience is too often undervalued and disrespected in decision-making in the family, community, religious and political institutions, and in relations among nations.
Women’s and girls’ human rights are like a canary in a mine, as their abuse indicates rising extremism, another reason that the inclusion of women’s voices in decision-making spaces is vital for achieving effective solutions. Yet, women-led peacemaking and community development efforts that have shown real results in preventing recruitment into terrorist groups have received far too little moral and financial support. The Women, Peace and Security Act would address this gap.
We call upon policymakers to inform their decisions through listening to local actors, especially women, who are advancing effective solutions despite all odds. An example is Fatima Kadhim Al-Bahadly who has single-handedly disarmed 500 militia members and put them to work rebuilding the community. After working for many years in Southern Iraq with widows and families left destitute by ongoing war in her country, she shifted her attention to peacemaking. Last summer, Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, called on families in the region to arm themselves after Sunni-led insurgents seized many nearby towns. Realizing that militias were proliferating, Fatima worried about the potentially dangerous consequences of adding more armed groups to the already volatile mix. As a trusted figure in the community, Fatima was able to raise $5,000 locally for food and clothing for these men, and she hired them to repair schools, buildings and roads, convincing them that service was another, better form of jihad. This kind of demobilization and reconstruction is the basis for lasting peace and cannot be achieved by outside actors, in Iraq or in Syria. The many billions of dollars in reconstruction aid to Iraq could never produce results compared to what women like Fatima can achieve.
Women peacemakers also reminded us that extremist beliefs that fuel intolerance and violence are not just found in Islam. Across the globe, extremist beliefs and movements appear to be rising. Buddhist narratives fueling hatred and violence against Muslims have escalated in recent years in Sri Lanka and Burma. In the latter, proposed legislation by Buddhist nationalist groups target Muslim groups generally, but women even more specifically — calling for restrictions on women’s freedom to marry whom they want, and to decide the number of children they’ll have. In several African countries, including the Central African Republic and Nigeria, Christian militia groups operate. Hate and extremist ideologies are on the rise in the U.S. as well, sometimes promoted by Christians. To single out the Muslim community as the only one in which this phenomenon is found is not only incorrect, but counterproductive. It fuels the sense in the Muslim world that the U.S. is targeting Islam specifically, one of the recruiting narratives of violent Islamic extremist groups.
While religious engagement is necessary, not just any engagement will do. Too often policymakers seek out the obvious authorities rather than investing in relationship with religious communities, reinforcing the existing power imbalances and inequalities that work against those working for peace and equality from within. Religious and gendered engagement should be integrated, not mutually exclusive. Women of faith are vitally placed in their communities and are often the ones doing this work already. Religious engagement must move beyond mere instrumentalization of religious actors to foster relationships that reflect mutual respect, and our common aim of sustainable peace, only then will we gain access to the knowledge of these peacebuilders which is critical to combatting violent extremism. Policymakers should collaborate substantively and respectfully with women and men religious actors who support women’s and girls’ human rights, elevating their lessons learned and best practices, while taking care not to coopt their trusted positions within their communities.
The Congress and the President can take action immediately to support the role of women in peacemaking, and in so doing, they will balance the near-term use of force with long-term strategies and community-based initiatives. We call on the Congress and the President to:
- Pass and sign into law the Women, Peace and Security Act, legislation that is a vital step toward providing peacemakers the support they need to win the peace we all seek.
This legislation will help to institutionalize inclusive leadership and elevate the voices of women peacemakers who are calling for policies to help advance their work. Their collective on-the-ground experience leads them to recommend for policymakers to:
- Advance proactive, preventive strategies that are oriented to a vision of a future with sustainable peace;
- Address the root causes of violence in society as also vital to preventing violence against women and girls;
- Promote inclusive leadership and governance because disproportionate power among social groups exacerbates existing inequalities that are destabilizing;
- Allow space for internal reform and debate within religious communities by refraining from coopting issues or actors for instrumental purposes;
- Support the agency of local peacebuilders, especially women, by respecting their lived experience and listening to their context specific needs;
- Consult more regularly and more deeply with local peacebuilders, especially women, who can provide invaluable feedback about realities on the ground, by complementing public hearings with more intensive private discussions that allow for more substantial exchange of ideas and insights.
- Elevate successful peacebuilding efforts, to counteract the spiral of fear in public discourse which promotes resorting to military tactics even when proven ineffective;
- Promote gender and social justice education, including nonviolence, from the primary level to combat the social acceptance of violence as a solution to problems;
- Address the climate of impunity for violence against women, children, and civilians, as one of the root causes of the perpetuation of violent conflict in the world;
- Recognize that development, social, cultural, political, and economic, is actually the best strategy to counter and prevent violent extremism.
For more information or to connect with the Carter Center’s Mobilizing Action for Women and Girls Initiative, please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.