Most parents would do anything to protect their families from harm, but many feel helpless when they discover that their sons or daughters are involved in terrorism.
With funding from the United States and other donors, the MotherSchools: Parenting for Peace program has supported thousands of women around the world in guiding their children and other family members away from terrorism. The program does not blame families for choices made by their children, but rather supports them with training and offers them an assistance network to help them overcome challenges unique to their situation. First launched as a pilot program in Tajikistan in 2013 with support from the U.S. Department of State, MotherSchools has since built training programs in 16 countries across Africa, Asia, and Europe.
According to the Global Counterterrorism Forum (GCTF), “families represent key, often under-utilized, partners” in preventing and countering terrorist radicalization and recruitment. Engaging families is a critical component of the State Department’s counterterrorism strategy. Mothers present a vital, indispensable link in the whole-of-community approach to preventing the spread of terrorism. Their physical and emotional proximity allow them to witness each stage of their child’s development. While mothers have the potential to intervene in the initial stages of the radicalization process, they often lack the essential skills, confidence, and support networks to recognize and address early warning signs in their sons and daughters.
Created by Dr. Edit Schlaffer, the Founder and Executive Director of the Vienna-based organization Women without Borders, MotherSchools partners with local organizations in each country to identify participants for 10-week train-the-trainer workshops. Some participants are community leaders or practitioners while others have family members who have been directly impacted by terrorism. Upon graduation from the program, participants are encouraged to facilitate discussion groups with other women in their communities. Some even form their own chapters of Women without Border’s “Sisters Against Violent Extremism (SAVE)” network.
In Belgium, MotherSchools partnered with the mother of a foreign terrorist fighter killed in Syria. This woman has spoken to communities across Belgium and throughout Europe about the role families can play in safeguarding young people from terrorism.
In 2017, U.S. Embassy Dhaka brought this Belgian mother to Bangladesh to share her story with government officials, law enforcement, and community leaders. Bangladesh was still reeling from the 2016 Holey Artisan Bakery terrorist attack, in which ISIS-inspired terrorists killed 24 people in an upscale neighborhood of Dhaka. The identity of the perpetrators – college educated young people from middle class families – defied Bengali assumptions regarding terrorism. The Belgian mother’s engagements encouraged greater public discussion about community-based efforts to counter terrorist radicalization and recruitment, which helped pave the way for U.S. government support of MotherSchools in Bangladesh.
In North Macedonia, MotherSchools has complemented local and national government efforts to push back against terrorist ideology. In addition to helping prevent terrorist radicalization and recruitment, the program is seen by both local and national leaders as a positive, effective approach to the rehabilitation and reintegration of foreign terrorist fighters and family members repatriated from Syria and Iraq, as well as broader Countering Violent Extremism efforts in the country. In fact, the program in North Macedonia has seen such a positive turnout and demand that Women without Borders sponsored two iterations of the MotherSchools program.
“It’s a way for the mother to go outside of the house, not to be stuck between four walls, and to be aware of what is going on in her community, and to be able to act if I notice something going on with my child,” one participant from North Macedonia said of MotherSchools.
Through the passage of the Women, Peace, and Security Act of 2017, the United States became the first country in the world with a comprehensive law on Women, Peace, and Security (WPS). Among other things, it called for a new, whole-of-government U.S. Strategy on Women, Peace, and Security, which was released in 2019 and followed by the 2020 State Department Implementation Plan. This policy framework strengthens U.S. efforts to ensure the safety and meaningful participation of women in efforts to prevent conflict, promote peace, and counter radicalization and recruitment to terrorism.
In addition to MotherSchools, Women without Borders has implemented other initiatives around the world to ensure fathers and other family members also have the knowledge and confidence to push back against terrorist influences in their community. After supporting several iterations of MotherSchools in Belgium, for example, U.S. Embassy Brussels will soon partner with Women without Borders and a local organization to pilot the FatherSchools program in Antwerp. Collectively, these programs make communities safer and more resilient by empowering women and families who previously felt left out of security-focused discussions.
About the Author: Michael Duffin serves as a Policy Advisor in the Bureau of Counterterrorism at the U.S. Department of State.