Two years ago this month, Michael Brown's death sparked outrage across the United States, as we were forced to acknowledge unresolved racial tensions many thought long gone. With our attention focused domestically, a massacre halfway around the world didn't make as many U.S. headlines.
In August 2014, ISIS hunted down thousands of Yazidis in Iraq, and Yazidi women and girls were captured in staggering numbers as sex slaves. When we are faced with challenges that are so entrenched, like structural racism and the systemic violence that categorizes so much of the Middle East today, it can feel daunting to even consider how to create change. In the United States, shining a light on racism has helped organize and motivate citizens and the government to take action: as the adage goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. In Iraq, it will take more than sunlight, as stories about Yazidi women and girls being taken as sex slaves have been well documented. It will take investing in women as agents of peace and security, both by governments implementing their commitments under international law and by the philanthropic sector, with targeted projects supporting women's inclusion in all aspects of society, especially governance.
By investing in women and girls as agents of change, funders in the peace and security sector are - in their own way - helping to counter violent extremism. Not just antiquities and oil, but women, too, are fueling ISIS and their particular brand of terrorism (selling Yazidi women and girls back to their families and to civil society organizations that agree to pay for their release is one of ISIS's main income generating activities.) The philanthropic community and the practitioners they fund spend every month of the year to make girls and women safer around the world. These people have, in fact, been doing this work long before countering violent extremism (CVE) or "ISIS" became household terms.
A recent study by the Peace and Security Funders Group showed that 11% of peace and security funding goes towards women and girls. Initiatives supported by several funders show that philanthropists are putting women at the forefront of crucial peace and security interventions, which is exactly where they should be. For example, Ploughshares Fund supports Aware Girls, an organization run by two sisters in northwest Pakistan who encourage youth to resist calls to violent to action; the El-Hibri Foundation funds Karamah, an initiative to advance the gender-equitable principles of Islam to Muslim women in the United States; and MADRE supports the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, which creates safe houses in Iraq to support women and girls who have been trafficked and raped, and in other ways fallen victim to the seemingly endless violence in Iraq.
While women everywhere can experience a lack of personal safety necessitating the work of civil society actors worldwide, women in areas of conflict are at a far greater risk of violence. The flipside to this, the small silver lining, is that when a country experiences conflict and the existing system and institutions fail, these situations provide opportunities for women to take on leadership roles in rebuilding their communities - communities that are more sustainable and just.
Women should participate at all levels of governance and decision-making. When women are at decision-making tables, better choices will emerge on all issues, including health, education, food security, and climate change.
We all have a part to play in making that change happen.
By investing in and supporting women, peace, and security, philanthropists and foundations can provide the basis for building leadership in all development areas. We need to strengthen the intersection of women's rights, development, and peace and security.
Similarly, Members of Congress have a role to play. They can follow Congressman Ed Royce's (R-CA) lead and support hearings on critical peace and security matters and women (like this one). They can familiarize themselves with local CVE efforts in their home states and highlight the work of women leaders, or they can ensure that monies appropriated towards CVE efforts include the critical voices of women leaders. Members can ensure that the U.S. is doing its part to be a world leader in demanding women are not just a casualty of violence, but an integral part of the solution.
Meredith Stricker is a Program Director at the Peace and Security Funders Group, a network of 65 funders and philanthropists funding a range of national security, foreign policy, and peace issues.