Press release: Protecting women’s rights in North Africa is key to ending violent extremism, a new extensive UN Women study finds

Date: Monday, November 18, 2019

Tunis, 18 November 2019 - The findings of the two-year research project, generously funded by the Government of the United Kingdom, will be released in Tunis today highlighting the relationship between misogyny and hostile sexist attitudes and support for violent extremism.

The last decade has witnessed an increase in violent extremism and acts of terrorism in North Africa. While the majority of those who have supported and joined extremist groups are men, North African countries have also seen many of their female citizens travel to other countries in the region to join the Islamic State on Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), despite its gender regressive ideology. In addition, gendered language has been instrumental to the recruitment and retention strategies of violent extremist groups across the region, as noted by UN Women in its 2018 report, Empowerment or Subjugation: An Analysis of ISIL's Gender Messaging.

Despite these linkages, little robust research and analysis have been available on the nexus between violent extremism and gender, women’s motivations to join such groups and the roles they play in their ranks and the strategies women employ to combat violent extremism. To fill this gap, UN Women, Monash University and its partners in Morocco, Tunisia and Libya have conducted extensive research across the Maghreb over the past two years. The reports explore how social constructions of masculinity and femininity, and gender dynamics are manipulated by violent extremist groups through their recruitment strategies. The reports also examine the strategies women in North Africa have employed to prevent the spread of violent extremism.

The Libya country research, Gender Equality and Violent Extremism: A Research Agenda for Libya is the largest study in its scope and scale globally to examine the link between gender and violent extremism. Undertaken across Libya and reaching over 800 people, it found that supporting or condoning violence against women is the only statistically significant factor positively associated with support for violent extremism in Libya. Linked to this, violent extremist groups use financial incentives to radicalize men and women to violence, playing into masculine gender norms of breadwinning and leadership, and women’s economic vulnerability. Its findings highlight that women who are subordinate to and/or dependent on extremist male relatives are more likely to be recruited by those relatives.

While there is no relationship between religiosity and support for violent extremism, the increase of religious schools has spread intolerance, extremism and discriminatory gender ideology. For example, the study found that women-only koranic study groups are the main recruitment places for women radicalization in Libya. Traditional and online media, including social media, were also found to be important channels for spreading extremist ideologies and recruit men and women to Jihad. Finally, it found that women play informal roles in countering and preventing violent extremism as well as advocating for women’s rights in Libya, although these roles are under-documented and supported. 

“As extremist groups have placed the subordination of women at the forefront of their agenda, we also need a gendered understanding of motivations to join such groups if we are to prevent violent extremism,” said Moez Doraid, UN Women Regional Director, a.i. for the Arab States.

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