Mr. Speaker, the spread of terrorism and extremist ideas has claimed countless lives, destroyed hundreds of communities, and spawned radical groups around the world. Women, in particular, have long been the victims of these radical ideologies.
Just last week, the terrorist group Boko Haram targeted a girl’s school in Nigeria and abducted more than 100 young girls. This incident follows the 2014 abduction of 270 Nigerian school girls, of which 112 are still missing.
These acts are far from uncommon among Islamist terrorist organizations. Across the globe, jihadist networks subject women and young girls to horrendous human rights abuses.
These male-dominated extremist groups frequently deny basic rights, like access to education or political representation to women as a core component of their ideology. Terrorist groups like ISIS and Boko Haram are often the worst abusers of women, forcing them into marriages and sexual slavery.
It should be no surprise that the status of women in a society is often an important indicator as to how vulnerable that society is to violence and radicalization. Yet, while being one of the primary targets of terrorist groups, women are also being radicalized and recruited into these groups.
Some support the group’s operations, enforce its laws, or marry and bear the children of terrorist fighters. Others actually commit these heinous acts of terror.
In recent years, as many as 3,000 women have traveled to the Middle East to join ISIS with many becoming female suicide bombers. Despite the marginalization and brutality of women in extremist-held lands, repressive regimes, persistent conflict, and poor development policies can create conditions that make groups like ISIS be seen as an opportunity for women.
Extremist groups exploit female grievances and claim to offer women greater empowerment and increased status—luring them into joining their extremist cause. Once radicalized, terrorist organizations will leverage the societal status of women to further their violent goals.
For example, Boko Haram has exploited cultural perceptions of women in Nigeria as non-violent and unlikely to be involved in terrorism, to use them as intelligence and recruiting tools. In our efforts to combat terrorism and extremism abroad, we have neglected the important role women can play to actually prevent radicalization and facilitate peace-building in areas long-worn by violence.
Women are well placed in homes, schools, and communities to challenge extremist narratives. Research shows that anti-terrorism messages can be more effectively spread by women because they are more directly involved with those most vulnerable to terrorist recruitment: the world’s youth.
Given their importance in families and communities, it is essential that women, both at home and abroad, are more meaningfully enlisted in the fight against terrorism. Two years ago as French police hunted for the mastermind behind the Paris attacks that killed 130, it was a woman who reported his whereabouts to police.
Her role as a surrogate mother to family members of the attacker allowed her access and trust that men unfamiliar to the family would have never have gained. Her brave action prevented a planned follow-on attack.
Meanwhile in Kosovo, it was women who were first in their communities to voice concerns when young men began stocking weapons and conducting training exercises in 1998. Unfortunately, these women’s warnings of impending conflict were ignored.
Such an example demonstrates the critical role of women in spotting emerging violence and gaining trust within families and communities. Unfortunately, we often lack their perspectives because women are underrepresented in governments where terrorist groups are most active.
Because of their better ability to build trust, women have proven to improve the outcomes of conflict mediation and peace building. A study of 40 peace processes in 35 countries over the past 30 years, found that when women were involved, more agreements were reached, implemented, and sustained.
As more and more terrorist groups threaten our country, our allies, and our interest throughout the world, it is vital that we leverage the talents and perspectives of women as part of a multifaceted approach to ensure security at home and abroad. It must be policy of the United States, that as we work in societies damaged by years of war and political unrest, we empower women to have a larger voice.
While the men in these male-dominated cultures have continued to fight and disagree, it is the women, who are often the biggest victims that have demonstrated an ability to reach peaceful settlements. By taking important steps to integrate women into its security strategies, the U.S. will unleash untapped skills and abilities to defeat radical terrorists that would rather have them subjugated.
In the fight against terrorism, we need everyone at the table—especially women.
And that’s just the way it is.