Your village was just attacked by an armed extremist group. You husband decides to take up arms to fight the terrorists and is ultimately killed. You’re left with three young children, your elderly mother, and no income. You can’t grow food because you can’t get water. You can’t get water because the road to the river is blocked by the armed extremists, who still threaten your village. They’ve started going after the widows, demanding to be fed and housed by them, under threat of rape or even death. You want to leave, but your elderly mother is sick and cannot travel, and you’ve heard reports of single women being raped along the road to the refugee camp.
Terrorism impacts women in a numerous ways. There’s been a flurry of media around the issue of women, peace and security as we approach the 15th anniversary of UN Security Council Resolution 1325. Women are the targets of violence by armed groups and they are disproportionately affected when both armed violence and humanitarian crises hit, these articles correctly point out. At the same time, women are routinely excluded from the peacemaking table. We need a gender perspective across the board in conflict prevention and peacemaking, they rightly note. And because women and girls are now joining extremist groups, the imperative to involve them in these processes has reached a fever pitch.
There’s one important piece missing from these discussions, however, and that is the impact of U.S. counterterrorism laws and policies on programs to support and include women in peacebuilding. Numerous organizations, both here and abroad, are working on behalf of women around the world who want to improve their communities despite the threat of armed conflict. Yet current U.S. law affects these organizations in the same way they impact all U.S. groups – by preventing life-saving work in terrorist controlled areas for fear of running afoul of the prohibition on the material support of terrorism and sanctions laws.
Official U.S. government policy states a commitment to strengthen women’s participation at all levels of government, including identifying female partners around the world and supporting their activities. The U.S. government takes the position that women should not be seen as just passive recipients of its programs. However, the opportunities that the U.S. purports to support with one hand are quickly snatched with the other hand.
According to a 2011 report by the NYU School of Law, there are countless examples of how terrorists undermine the rights of women and how the U.S. government’s counterterrorism response fails to protect and can make things worse. The U.S. government’s significant cuts to humanitarian aid to Somalia prior to the 2011 famine (for fear it would be diverted to al-Shabaab), for example, wreaked havoc on the humanitarian crisis there, with disproportionate impact on women and girls.
In addition to the laws that prevent legitimate peacebuilding and humanitarian projects in terrorist-controlled areas, there are terrorist financing laws that restrict donations to nonprofits. The UN has stated that these have had a big impact on women’s rights organizations, and have interfered with efforts by these groups to resolve conflicts, support victims of terrorism, advance the rule of law and human rights, and realize equality, political inclusion and socioeconomic empowerment. The Special Rapporteur notes that this “may curb efforts that would effectively counter conditions conducive to terrorism."
Enabling legislation is needed to create a legal space for legitimate groups to work in these conflict zones, regardless of whether they’re controlled by terrorist groups, and to minimally engage with listed entities in order to reach vulnerable populations. Changes in U.S. law would allow us to support women working to improve conditions in extremist-held areas and offer alternatives to armed violence. Legislative reform could allow civil society to address the root causes of the issues surrounding women in conflict, and create positive, lasting change by allowing nonprofit organizations, particularly those that focus on either women’s rights, peacebuilding or both, to enter these global hot spots to assist the women working for positive change and to provide their lifesaving work.
The UN Special Rapporteur has reiterated the need to ensure that there are humanitarian exceptions to sanctions, particularly the freezing of funds, and has noted that organizations that further gender equality may be among the nonprofit organizations that reduce the appeal of terrorism by engaging in development measures that can counteract conditions conduct to recruitment to terrorism. Let’s talk about how we can create a way for these groups to help women abroad, especially those living in terrorist-controlled areas.