July 9, 2019
PVE and Gender: A Case for Gender-Sensitive Counter-Extremism Approaches

Extremism, PVE and Gender

The term ‘extremism’ is a widely debated concept. It holds a variety of interpretations and lacks a clear definition. The term is not linked to any specific ideology or region but exists in several forms worldwide. Jennifer Philippa Eggert describes extremism as ‘dogmatic, radical, extremist views and black and white thinking’ which has the ability to manifest into violence. Counter-extremism (or CVE) programmes aim to prevent or effectively respond to extremist actions.

Preventing Violent Extremism (PVE) programmes aim to tackle violent extremism by focusing on prevention. The United Nations outline two fundamental dimensions to approaching the issue. Firstly, they advocate for tackling the rise of violent extremism using peacebuilding and development approaches that incorporate human rights principles. Secondly, they focus on effective governance of increasingly diverse multi-cultural societies. PVE programmes take a soft approach to addressing radical and extremist behaviour, unlike military and coercive strategies.

However, many PVE programmes are characterised by an absence of gender sensitivity and research that would help further understand the drivers of violent extremism. Gender has only recently been incorporated within the UN’s Global Counter-Terrorism strategies. N’dun’u and Shadung argue that violent extremism and terrorism are highly gendered activities, and the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe describe terrorism as a ’gendered phenomenon’ – so why are gendered approaches often missing in PVE programmes? And is there a risk that PVE might strengthen gender inequalities?

Is PVE impeding female empowerment and putting women at risk?

A widespread stereotype of women within the PVE agenda is that they are ‘passive’ and victims of violent extremism. Of course, women are often victims of extremist violence; however, this stereotype fails to acknowledge women’s roles as perpetuators and enablers of violence . PVE approaches often view women as ‘intelligence-gatherers’ within communities and families, with the aim to use their insights as mother, wife or daughter to spot signs of radicalisation or extremism. Not only does this fail to take the diverse roles that women play in society into account, it also instrumentalizes them and potentially jeopardises their safety.

Presenting women as a homogenous group only strengthens inequalities, particularly if it entails viewing them as inherently more peaceful and if it ignores individual and group intersectionality. Attempts to predict the thoughts and actions of men and women solely on their gender is outdated, inaccurate and holds no evidence. It denies women full recognition of the entirety of their varied roles with regards to violent extremism, restricting them to stereotypes and oppressing their agency and empowerment.

Recommendations for PVE Actors

To attempt to counter this issue, providing better education and enhancing opportunities for women is pertinent. However, education and the creation of opportunities is not sufficient to address these problems. We need comprehensive and holistic approaches in our engagement with women. In order to improve approaches in PVE programmes, and create more opportunities for women, it is essential to fully recognise women’s potential. PVE actors would be well advised to review their agenda to incorporate and promote a coherent gender-sensitive approach.

A first step would be to adopt an approach that adheres to the ‘Do No Harm’ principle. This includes conflict sensitivity, supporting local accountability and ownership. Using the ‘Do No Harm’ principle can help identify and reduce potential negative impact of PVE, thus help improve frameworks, practices and policies.

Challenging persistent views of women, acknowledging female experiences and the myriad of roles that they play are also key issues to address. Men still make the majority of violent extremists; however, women also have important positions in many violent extremist organisations – so they must also be included in PVE and peacebuilding. As well as tackling the issue of inequality, culture must also be considered. In cases where women oppose feminism or view gender equality as a challenge to their societies, this must be taken into account in PVE frameworks and agendas. 

Additionally, it is important to challenge the perceptions of women as peaceful, passive or victims only. Instead, their multiple roles with regards to violent extremism and its prevention must be considered. This includes recognising women’s participation as recruiters, organisers and perpetrators of violent extremism. In this context, it is crucial to realise that it is an individual’s agency, their experiences and consciousness that shape a decision, not only their gender.

Adopting gender-sensitive approaches in PVE will allows us to account for the different experiences and grievances of women, girls, men and boys – which would put us one step closer to designing effective methods for tackling violent extremism.


Written by Madison Gough

Research and Development Intern


Further Reading

Eggert, J. P. (2018). The Roles of Women in Counter-Radicalisation and Disengagement (CraD) Processes: Best Practices and Lessons Learned from Europe and the Arab World. Berlin: Berghof Foundation.

Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (2019). Understanding the Role of Gender in Preventing and Countering Violent Extremism and Radicalization That Lead to Terrorism; Good Practices for Law Enforcement.

United Nations Development Programme (2018) Assessing Progress Made, and the Future of Development Approaches to Preventing Violent Extremism. Report of the United Nations Development Programmes Second Global Meeting on Preventing Violent Extremism, ‘Oslo II’.

Winterbotham. E. (2018). Do Mothers Know Best? How Assumptions Harm CVE. Tony Blair Institute for Global Change.