Three young women provide a stark reminder of the twist of violent conflict

February 25, 2015 | Nick Taylor

Kelly Simcock, Director of Commissions at the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace provides expert comment on why some young people are taking actions, like the three young women from Tower Hamlets who have travelled to Syria, and how the Foundation’s prevention work with young people, women and in communities is vitally important.

To view Kelly’s appearance on ITV Good Morning Britain and hear her talking about the young women’s departure and the consequences CLICK HERE

The departure of three young women from East London to a new life in the so called ‘Islamic state’ last week was a stark reminder of the way that this conflict continues to twist in ways that we could never have imagined.

The idea of young men going to join a ‘foreign army’ for a life of excitement, adventure, beliefs or in some cases to help those people who were suffering at the hands of a brutal regime; this was a concept that people could at least understand to begin with. Young women have however become the group most sought after now by the so called Islamic State as the call to action is for the women to come and join them in building a state based on a ‘pure form of Islam’ and one in which they can take on the roles that women really should and can take on to help in establishing a new social order. The call is an attractive one as it promises adventure, identity and a sense of belonging and purpose that the extremists lead them to believe cannot be found elsewhere.

The trouble is that whilst many of us can see straight through this black and white argument, others don’t. In some cases, this is because they’re subjected to a very slick PR machine with compelling propaganda. Posters and slogans telling people that ‘We need you’ is not a tactic that we are unfamiliar with. It’s part of an approach designed to promote an ‘us and them’ mentality and designed to convince its target audience that they should join in with a fight against ‘the enemy’. The flow of images and films showing the persecution of Muslims in different parts of the world are emotive and reminds them of their duty to the Ummah (Arabic word meaning nation and community) and of their opportunity to be part of an entity that will provide safety and fight back against the non believers to put right these injustices.

The steady stream of twitter messages and images illustrating a life less ordinary, full of meaning and excitement, are proving to be an effective weapon in ISIS’ arsenal. From young women sharing stories about their exciting firearms training sessions to tales of status and importance being gained by those who at home may have felt alone, restricted and unimportant.  These combine to convey a sense of promise that migrating to join this group can offer a better life.

So our attentions are now being turned to how we can combat this and driven more and more by the stories of how our young women, like those from Bethnal Green; are taking these decisions.

There is no easy way of doing this. Simply ‘countering the narrative (in a classic sense) by putting out ‘counter messages’ will not work in isolation as it can often harden positions and fuel the fire and it will feel or even be portrayed as simply ‘them’ attacking ‘us’.

What we need to do is to work at a much earlier stage to listen and to address these issues at the root cause before we’re at the point where three young women are ready to take themselves off to Syria. The issues are many and the motivations range from a desire to contribute to a society to which they feel they can belong to a yearning for adventure that the new life seems to offer…. either way, this is something we need to address at home.

So how do we deal with this?

At the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace, our THINK project is one of our preventative programmes aimed at building young peoples’ resilience to pernicious ideologies. Through interactive learning methods and a programme lasting 10 days – the team work to improve young peoples’ ability to THINK for themselves: exploring prejudice and stereotypes – their impacts, consequences and how they build the foundations of mistrust and alienation; looking into single narratives and understanding how black and white thinking leads to tunnel vision; understanding the push and pull factors that lure young people into these groups. It is by equipping them with the knowledge and understanding, that they are able to understand just how easy it is to be manipulated.

Our programme works with young men and women alike from all backgrounds – giving them the chance to work together to understand the forces that try to create an ‘us and them’ state of thinking and being. It is during these programmes that young people get to find out where their identities and strengths lie and how they can grow and play a role more meaningful. It is through the time and attention paid by a team of skilled facilitators that myths can be challenged and talent can be nurtured.

Our Women Building Peace programme is also pushing new frontiers as we now enter into delivering our fifth programme since its commencement in August last year. As an accredited programme, it takes participants through a journey designed to increase their skills to identify and respond to conflict effectively and whilst its ‘peace-building’ title may convey a soft message – the skills developed are anything but. It is through the creation and maintenance of safe spaces that the role of women and families are discussed and approaches to the challenges they face are explored and shared. It is through the training workshops that skills in approaching difficult and sensitive topics can be developed. And a confidence that may mean that a mother who sees signs of change in her daughter or son may feel empowered to ask them about it rather than waiting for something bad to happen. This network is growing in size and in voice and is building a confidence in women who may not previously have realised how they could impact.

Programmes like these are crucial to dealing with issues like the one we saw emerge last Wednesday as three young women set out from home that fateful day. If we are going to allow conversations to take place to really tackle these issues and provide training, support an confidence for those parents to deal with the challenges: this work must be taken seriously.

Our manifesto (click here to download) recognises the challenges facing society on these topics and working with young people and women is firmly at its heart. It must also, however, be a priority for governments and society to take this seriously.

Prevention and resilience building may require investment, but it has to be an investment worth making if we are to truly beat the extremists hell bent on keeping our societies apart.

Kelly Simcock is Director of Commissions at the Tim Parry Johnathan Ball Foundation for Peace and the Co Chair of the European Commission’s Radicalisation Awareness Network.