COVID-19 Op-ed

COVID-19 is Driving Violent Extremist Dynamics in Southeast Asia With Distinct Gendered Impacts

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UN Women Regional Office for Asia and the

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a new
landscape for violent extremist organisations (VEO) to exploit those
vulnerable to recruitment in Southeast Asia. Lockdowns in the region have
disrupted livelihoods, increasing socio-economic pressures and shifting the
drivers and dynamics of extremist recruitment. In this setting, women have
been exposed to new and evolving threats of recruitment.That VEO employ
gendered recruitment strategies is not a new phenomenon. From seeking ‘Jihadi
brides’ to calling for women to play a submissive role in supporting male
family members participation with VEOs, taking advantage of gendered
vulnerabilities and stereotypes has long been a tactic.But in the context of
COVID-19, with many women and girls confined to their homes due to lockdowns,
community resilience against recruitment by VEO may be weakened, having a
particularly harmful effect on women and girls.Violent extremist messaging
during COVID-19 restrictions may expose women to greater risks of misogynistic
violence, actively court their participation as violent actors, and limit
their capacity to act as preventers of violent extremism.The nexus between misogyny, domestic
violence and violent extremism
During COVID-19 lockdowns in
Southeast Asia, there has been a spike in misogynistic posts on social media.
A comparative historical analysis revealed that the number of misogynistic
posts on Facebook during COVID-19 lockdowns in March through June 2020 was
168% higher than the number of misogynistic posts posted in the same groups
during the corresponding time period in 2019 (UN Women, 2020). While it is
unclear if these misogynistic posts were being placed by VEO, it is known
that hostile sexist attitudes toward women and support for violence against
women are the factors most strongly associated with support for violent
extremism (Johnson, et al, 2020). In this way, the surge in online misogyny
during the lockdowns may be fuelling support for violent extremism in the
region. This is likely to have far reaching consequences as the promotion of
gender equality within the family and community is one of the most powerful
ways to counteract violent extremist ideologies (UN Women, 2020).Further, reported
cases of domestic violence have increased significantly since the start of
the pandemic. In the first 100 days of the pandemic, hotlines in Malaysia
reported a 57 per cent increase in calls on domestic violence (UN Women,
2020). An emerging element of the dynamic of domestic violence and links to
violent extremism during this period is reports that VEO are responding to
increases in domestic violence by presenting themselves as a safer option for
women trapped in abusive home environments. They are seeking to boost
recruitment by offering women alternatives to an unsafe home environment with
protection within their networks (Monash University, 2020).Poverty and despair increase the risks
of women as perpetrators
Mindanao, Philippines, Islamic militants are recruiting vulnerable groups
living in fragile situations who have been deeply impacted by the pandemic,
including by losing their livelihoods (Banlaoi, 2020). The informal labour
sector, where women are overrepresented, has been hard hit by the pandemic,
making women seek alternative economic opportunities, and more vulnerable to
recruitment by VEO and the financial security on offer. Since the outbreak of
the virus, ISIS-affiliated groups have carried out at least two attacks in
Mindanao, and reports suggest that the two suicide bombers were women
(Gutierrez, 2020).Across Southeast Asia, there is growing evidence that
during this period women are taking on more active roles in extremist
networks (Yousaf, 2020, and Jamal, 2020). In Indonesia for example, there is
a trend of increasing involvement of women in terrorist activities (Nasir,
2020).Essential times to
support women preventing violent extremism
Given how VEO are
responding to the new landscape of COVID-19, it is now more important than
ever to support women’s rights and agency, including their opportunities to
prevent violent extremism.For many years, women have been at the forefront of
preventing violent extremism in Southeast Asia – in many situations, women
have been the first to feel, see and hear early warning signs of community
violence and radicalization. However, COVID-19 mobility restrictions have
created difficulties for women to access communities at risk and to
participate in day-to-day measures to maintain social cohesion in their own
communities.Enhancing gender equality and supporting women to build community
resilience are two of the most pressing needs to reduce the risks of
extremist movements taking advantage of crisis situations, like


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