Women play complex and nuanced roles in violent extremism in Mali and Niger. They represent strategic human resources for these groups, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) research shows.
Most policies to prevent and combat extremism in the two countries rely on assumptions that research rarely confirms. They primarily emphasise creating income-generating activities as a solution to stopping women’s involvement with violent extremists. But to address women’s association with these groups, it’s important to understand how and why they are recruited and their reasons for joining.
Interviews with women associated with Boko Haram in Niger’s Diffa region and katiba Macina in Mali’s Mopti and Ségou regions reveal how women help ensure these groups’ survival. Women also facilitate extremists’ integration into communities and actively contribute to their operations.
While some are forcibly recruited or collaborate unwittingly with the groups, others join of their own accord. Their voluntary association challenges traditional stereotypes that violence is a male prerogative. It also contradicts the popular idea that women who associate with groups have all been coerced.
Some women, for example, collaborate with katiba Macina to protect themselves from the insecurity fuelled partly by extremists in their areas. The research highlights a few cases where women have cooperated with the group to preserve their income-generating activities. Others align themselves voluntarily with katiba Macina to avenge the death of family members allegedly perpetrated by the Malian Armed Forces, during military operations, or by traditional hunters.
In Niger, some of the women interviewed joined Boko Haram to find a husband. Others willingly followed their husbands, parents or children. In a few cases, women said they joined Boko Haram for religious reasons, including access to religious education or the desire to wage jihad. These cases nevertheless appear to be in the minority, contrary to preconceptions that religious motivations primarily drive recruitment.
In Niger, the recurrent use of women as suicide bombers by Boko Haram increases women’s visibility. Women associated with Abubakar Shekau’s faction are said to be trained in firearms and archery to support military operations. They also act as gunsmiths or are deployed on suicide missions.
Most documented cases of female suicide bombers involve coercion. However, some volunteer to escape the group and join a spouse in heaven who died in combat or for religious convictions.
In Mali, women rarely appear in combat roles, even if they maintain links with groups. The Group for the Support of Islam and Muslims (GSIM), a coalition to which katiba Macina belongs, denies women’s participation in its operations and battles. In fact, women are generally not physically present in katiba Macina camps. ISS research shows that while they perform more low-profile roles, these are no less important in supporting the group’s operations.
The voluntary or forced association of women offers katiba Macina and Boko Haram significant strategic and operational advantages. Women are used for various reasons that evolve according to the groups’ needs and the contexts in which they operate.
Women help Boko Haram and katiba Macina to increase their numbers. As male members’ wives, they enable the group’s generational renewal and are tasked to raise children. They also help recruit members. They are used as bait, particularly by Boko Haram, to attract men seeking marriage.
Women enable groups to obtain logistics and finances necessary for their functioning. Katiba Macina and Boko Haram use women to get food, medicine and other necessities. They are involved in the supply chain for acquiring materials for operations, such as fertiliser for making improvised explosive devices. They also act as informants and scouts before military operations.
Girls and women kidnapped by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin countries and by GSIM member groups are used as bargaining chips to liberate their members and generate income through ransoms. In October 2020, GSIM supposedly obtained freedom for over 100 of its members and paid a ransom to secure the release of four hostages.
According to the ISS research, some women who join the groups – whether by force or choice – eventually decide to leave. Those associated with Boko Haram disengage from the group for various reasons. These include the need to escape a forced and abusive marriage with a group member, disillusionment, difficult living conditions, and fear of being killed by extremists or during attacks against their positions.
In most documented cases, women leave Boko Haram with their husbands. In some instances, their decision to leave is facilitated by external actors, such as close relatives or traditional and administrative authorities.
Mali is currently preparing to revise its national policy for preventing and combating violent extremism and terrorism, and Niger is finalising its national strategy to prevent radicalisation and violent extremism. As they do this, women’s experiences with these groups should be taken into account.
First, a clearer understanding of the many dynamics that underlie women’s association and disengagement from violent extremist groups would help limit their connections to extremists. Second, better consideration of women’s roles in operations and raising money could help weaken these groups in the long term.
Efforts aimed at limiting women’s links with these groups should also consider their ties with male relatives who are group members and critical conduits for women into these groups. Third, strengthening women’s resilience and that of the social actors who can help build their resilience at a community level is essential.
Finally, those working to prevent and counter violent extremism at the local level must be protected from retaliation by these groups. Only then can women’s association with violent extremist groups be prevented.
Written by Jeannine Ella Abatan, Senior Researcher, Regional Office for West Africa, the Sahel and the Lake Chad Basin, Dakar
This article is the third publication of a project funded by the International Development Research Center (IDRC) of Canada, the UK Conflict, Stability and Security Fund and the Government of Denmark on Responding to young people’s (men and women) association in violent extremist groups in Mali and Niger.