Strategies aimed at preventing and countering violent extremism will be most effective if they prioritize consultations with women-led civil society groups in their development and implementation, and women’s inclusion in the security sector. In the face of evolving global security challenges in which a growing number of conflicts involve insurgencies, extremist and criminal groups use violence to achieve their goals, the ways in which communities and security actors understand, manage and respond to serious threats can have significant a impact on long-term prospects for peace.

A lack of platforms for civic participation in security matters, or a lack of respect for human rights and the rule of law by security actors, can fuel grievances that fuel violence and crime. In particular women-led civil society organizations are typically excluded from policies and processes aimed at combating violent extremism, despite their knowledge in this area. In Nigeria, the insurgency by Boko Haram, which has been running for the past five years, has led to a humanitarian crisis. The increasing threat to security has shocked and stressed communities. This has altered the social fabric of our country, affecting livelihoods and economic activities, and creating deep resentment, hostility and mistrust. Women have been killed, widowed, raped or kidnapped by Boko Haram to become sex slaves, cooks and cleaners. The few that have escaped from Boko Haram camps have returned pregnant and traumatized, or even infected with HIV.

If women are the most vulnerable to this insurgency, then they have earned the right to be included in security. We cannot continue with the same exclusive and hard security approaches to combatting violent extremism and expect a different result. Understanding alternative approaches to preventing violent extremism has never been more important. An alternative and effective (cost, time and value) model – that will not only uphold human rights but also promote just and sustainable security responses to violent extremism – is needed. This model must seek to take its struggle from the open battlefields of counter-insurgency and counter -terrorism into communities dealing with and addressing the root causes of this violence.

In Nigeria, as well as most Africana nations, the involvement of women in security is seen as alien and taboo – and sometimes offensive to the men. Women civil society groups tap into the needs of communities, where women and children are disproportionately impacted by terrorism. They can facilitate better communication between the security sector and communities to address grievances with the state, and can be tremendous advocates for needed changes in the way governments approach these issues, ensuring they are effective and sustainable. When women are included in the security sector, they also help to present a softer face of security forces and reduce human rights abuses that anger communities. Religion has always been used as a powerful weapon for terrorism and violent extremism so the first strategy WOWWI adopted was, in its formation and constitution, to include both Christian and Muslim women who have refused to allow religion to be used as a tool for hate and division.

WOWWI has a strategy to preventing extremist violence at the local level which involves leading training sessions on human rights and facilitating security dialogues (HRSD) in local communities. The training sessions were designed to strengthen WOWWI’s capacity to counter violent extremism at the community level, and help link the local-level initiatives to national and international security policies and programs. At the end of the training sessions, WOWWI organized pilot community forums in four local government areas of Plateau State: Ryom, Barkin Ladi, Wase and Jos North – well known for violent extremism. Other groups of trained women carried out a similar project in Kaduna State. The forum set up a platform for regular community engagement with security agencies. It also provided a safe space for dialogue between civil society organizations, security actors and community members on just and sustainable responses to preventing violent extremism in their communities.

WOWWI also, in collaboration with Women Without Borders, developed and introduced the pilot project “Mothers School” in Jos, Nigeria and 147 women – ordinary housewives and mothers – were trained to be the first line of security for their homes, families, and communities. This was carried out in five volatile communities and the impact was tremendously positive on the confidence of women, who suddenly realized that they also were major stakeholders in this crisis and should be part of the solution.

“The Role of Women in Countering Terror in Nigeria”, speech delivered by Esther Ibanga at the United Nations, 9 September 2015.