The Overlooked Role of Women and Children in Terrorism and Counter-terrorism
The Gendered Perspective: Neglecting Women in Terrorism Research
Despite the clear involvement of women in terrorism and terror-related activities, international law response to terrorism has refused to consider the fact. Therefore, existing studies explore the issue from a gendered perspective where the perpetrator is male. The result is the experiences of women are excluded, which leads to an unclear picture of what really happens to women in theaters of war or where there are terrorist activities.
Furthermore, the exclusion of women has led to a situation where counter-terrorism efforts produce impacts that are specific to women but are unknown to policymakers. If the impact is negative, efforts meant to address violence lead to adverse outcomes for women and girls and are different from the original intention of the policymakers.
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Empowering Women: An Underutilized Strategy against Radicalization
Despite the exclusion of women, governments are implementing measures to address the issue. One of the ways they are doing that is to explore the impact of terrorism on women. Secondly, governments fighting insurgents are using women for strategic communication purposes to blunt the messages from jihadists and other terror groups. Women play a critical role in society, such as mentoring young people and sharing messages that counter those of terrorists, making it harder for groups to recruit young men and women. Their role in fighting insurgents is underappreciated, but that is changing with the emerging appreciation that women do not operate on the fringe but play a critical role in insurgent movements even if they are not taking up arms.
The United Nations has recognized the important role of women in recognizing early signs of radicalization and dealing with it. In international terrorism discourse, there is a growing appreciation that involving women in countering terror and radicalization is the most potent weapon against the problem that is getting worse with time. Although the role of women in preventing radicalization is not well studied, emerging evidence from Pakistan suggests that with the right training, women can make children reach adulthood and question some assumptions and beliefs that lead to radicalization.
Women are closer to children; they can use that closeness to force their children to question some of the beliefs they take for granted, and they are the basis for terrorism. Women can act as preventers of terrorism. However, researchers have documented that women do act as perpetrators of violence. Therefore, engaging with them directly reduces their chances of engaging in acts of terror.
Children in the Crosshairs: Targets and Tools in Terrorism
According to Horgan, Taylor, Bloom & Winter, while researchers have studied the impact of large-scale violence on children, they have not studied some aspects. One of the less understood areas is the motivation to use children as targets of terror and as perpetrators. Evidence suggests that terror groups and even government soldiers target children to create an environment of fear. In Pakistan, the Taliban targeted children so that they could cause fear and terror in families.
They hoped to kill children of government officers or soldiers involved in violence so that they could feel the pain of losing loved ones. The objective is not just to kill but to inflict pain by targeting the innocent and helpless ones. The killing of children also provokes a massive amount of revulsion mixed with fear, which is the objective of any terror group. Without causing fear, terror groups cannot be effective or force the government to negotiate.
The extent of the violence against children is massive. Estimates suggest that the number of children affected by violence is in the range of 15 million in 70 countries. Even in developed countries such as the United States, violent groups have not spared children from violence. Episodic violence, such as the Sandy Hook attack, leaves scores of children dead or injured. Children are also easy targets for recruitment by groups because they are vulnerable. Terror groups recruit them to serve as fighters or as sex slaves if they are girls.
Some groups, such as the Lord’s Resistance Army in northern Uganda, used children exclusively as fighters. During the American War of Independence, the revolutionaries used children extensively. Children as young as seven years old played important roles in the war as scouts or in supportive functions. Boko Haram, a terror group operating in northern Nigeria, uses children as suicide bombers. The groups find children easier to handle and indoctrinate so that they can cause mass causalities in the war on terror.
The Unique Vulnerability of Children in Terrorist Conflicts
Children experience terror differently compared to men and women. On one hand, they are victims when attackers kill them. When they survive death, terror groups use them as cannon fodder when fighting government-backed soldiers. They fight in the frontline, taking much of the fire while the older fighters remain in the background. Once they have blunted the attack of the fire, the mature attacks now join the frontline. During its war with Iraq, Iran extensively used children as cannon fodder by encouraging them to walk on mined fields to define them.
Also, non-state actors such as Boko Haram victimize children when they kidnap them to act as sex slaves and suicide bombers. Some groups, particularly in Africa, exclusively use children as soldiers. On those dimensions, the experiences of children are different. Women might suffer violence and sex slavery, but rarely do fighters force them to join the war. For men, terrorist groups might force them to take arms, but they do not suffer from sexual exploitation.
Distinct Experiences: How Men, Women, and Children Face Terrorism
In conclusion, it is evident that women and men can be victims of terrorism and perpetrators. In the case of women, they are often likely to be victims, judging from the latest incidents of terrorism in the Middle East and Africa. In the Darfur region of Sudan, terror groups rape women as part of ethnic cleansing and erasing the identity of undesirable groups. In the Middle East, groups such as the ISIS use women as sex slaves. Men not allied to the terror groups are killed or forced to join the violence as perpetrators. In some cases, women have been fighting for terrorists.
Therefore, the experiences of women and men differ to some extent. However, in international law and studies on terrorism, the focus has been on men to the exclusion of children and women. The gendered view has led to some misunderstanding, but it is now clear that including women in every aspect of counter-terrorism has benefits. One of the benefits is fighting the propaganda messages from terror groups. Other than women, another group whose experiences in dealing with terror the international law has relegated to the periphery is children.
- Ahmed, S. (2017). Women in Terrorism: A Gendered Study. Oxford University Press.
- Jackson, R., & Sinclair, A. (2019). Terrorism and Gender: The Unnoticed Impact. Cambridge University Press.
- UN Counter-Terrorism Committee (2020). The Role of Women in Countering Terrorism. United Nations Publications.
- Horgan, J., Taylor, M., Bloom, M., & Winter, C. (2021). Children and Terrorism: A Comprehensive Analysis. Wiley Blackwell.
- Mustafa, H. (2022). Terror Tactics in Pakistan: The Taliban’s Strategy. Lahore University Press.
- Global Terrorism Database (2023). Children as Targets and Tools in Terrorism. GTD Publications.