Women and violent extremism (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 898)



Review the available literature on women and violent extremism: What role have women played in preventing, promoting and participating in violent extremist groups and violent extremist acts over the last 15 years? What is the relationship between violent extremism and violence against women and girls?

Key findings

While gender has tended to be ignored in the literature on terrorism and political violence, a gender perspective of violent extremism has started to receive media and academic attention. However, experts identify the need for more systematic research on gender implications in terrorism and counter-terrorism studies. This rapid review of the literature finds that:

  • Women’s roles – as policy shapers, educators, community members and activists – in countering violent extremism have started to be recognised.
  • Various initiatives funded by international government and non-governmental organisations aim to support women’s role in preventing violent extremism, including by working with local grassroots women’s organisations.
  • There is growing recognition that women’s complex roles may involve supporting or encouraging violent extremism.
  • There has been a rise in women’s direct engagement in violent extremist acts, notably as suicide bombers, in the last thirty years for secular and (more recently) religious violent extremist groups.
  • A large body of literature explores the drivers that contribute to women becoming suicide bombers, with mixed findings on women's motivations.
  • There appears to be a lack of systematic research exploring the relationship between violent extremism and violence against women and girls.

Some insights into different facets of this relationship include:

  • Cultures of gender-based violence can be exacerbated during conflict.
  • Violent extremists with conservative or reactionary gender agendas are likely to victimise women.
  • Sexual violence and rape are a form of terrorism and used as a tool by violent extremists, notably towards women and girls.
  • Counter-terrorism measures may lead governments to fail to prevent or punish gender-based abuses.
  • There are mixed findings on whether personal trauma, most notably rape, is one of the fundamental motivations for women’s involvement in violent extremism.
  • Some experts raise issues in seeing all women as victims of violent extremism, arguing that this essentialist view does not reflect the more complex reality.


Carter, B. Women and violent extremism (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 898). Governance and Social Development Resource Centre, University of Birmingham, Birmingham, UK (2013) 13 pp.

Women and violent extremism (GSDRC Helpdesk Research Report 898)

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