The Shape of Contemporary Conflict in Southeast Asia: How Violent Extremism has Changed Our Women and Children

Women have played increasing roles in terrorism. Similarly, women must play increasing roles combatting this threat in Southeast Asia. Credit:

Women and Children in Terrorism: A Four-Part Analysis (Part 4: CVE Assessment for Southeast Asia’s Women and Children)


Local and Foreign Terrorist Fighters (FTFs) rely on the presence of women and children to circumvent detection by authorities. Women and children garner less media attention for their actions and are often perceived as victims rather than perpetrators in the theater of terrorism and violent extremism (VE). If the right opportunity exists terrorist organizations can exploit gender and age stereotypes to their advantage.

Women and children aligned with terrorist groups leverage gender and age dynamics for their benefit by claiming ignorance of terrorist acts in an attempt to minimize their culpability. When government authorities view male and female adherents of terrorism as distinct threats bearing different degrees of risk, these policy makers fall into the inherently flawed implementation of Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) and Deradicalization programmes. Skewed views that downplay the threat of women and children involved in terrorism activities are detrimental to the security and stability of the nation state. Consequently, it is vital for justice systems to recognize that women more actively facilitate or perpetrate violence, and play the most integral role in the recruitment and radicalization of children to become the future leaders of terrorist organizations.

CVE in Southeast Asia


Indonesia does not have specific laws and regulations that specifically address CVE. The policies for countering VE are inscribed in Law No. 15 of 2003 on the Eradication of Criminal Acts of Terrorism (the Anti-Terrorism Law). Using this law, combatting terrorism focuses on prosecution by the special anti-terror detachment, better known as Densus 88. The prevention of terrorism or the handling of conditions prior to terror acts occurring have been less rigorous both for men and women. The Coordination Forum on Terrorism Prevention (FKPT) involving religious leaders, youth organizations, academia, and civil society leaders focus primarily on seminars to stimulate dialogue on the prevention of terrorism. However, the women’s special role in terrorism is seldom tackled in these seminars.


Some Filipino women take on significant roles in preventing violent extremism and terrorism through raising awareness on the importance of early guidance and detection by helping parents, guardians, and educators mentor children and youth to veer away from radicalization and terrorist recruitment, and by engaging their respective communities in strategic activities and events. In 2019, UN Women convened three conversations with a total of 32 male and female community peace advocates from women’s groups and civil society organizations from around the Bangsamoro to discuss their perspectives on violent extremism. Among other recommendations are to intensify rights education, gender equality, social cohesion and peaceful narratives in educational curricula and instructional materials and create opportunities for women’s participation in formal and non-formal peace mechanisms such as local peace and order councils, and barangay peacekeeping.

In a serious bid to stem the spread of violent extremism, the Philippine Government through Proclamation No. 216 imposed martial law in Mindanao in May 2017 when local Maute terrorists and Daesh/ISIS-backed FTFs seized the city of Marawi. The peaceful implementation of martial law from 2017 to 2019 led to fewer violent incidents due to the checkpoints installed between geographic areas consisting of municipalities and cities, implemented curfews, and the strict regulation of firearms and ammunition.

Another worthy CVE initiative is that of the International Alert UK Philippines, which established a Violence Intensity Index in the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao through a Conflict Monitoring System. Members of the Communist Party of the Philippines-New People’s Army (CPP-NPA) communist-terrorist network are encouraged by the Philippine government to peacefully surrender in order to avail of the Enhanced Comprehensive Local Integration Program (E-CLIP). E-CLIP benefits include guaranteed safety and security; Php50,000 (USD1,040) in cash as livelihood assistance; an open-ended monthly allowance of Php21,000 (USD436) for meals and Php15,000 (USD311) for mobilization expenses; employment; loan processing for business capital; firearms remuneration amounting to the value of turned-in firearms; education; livelihood training; and free housing provided by the National Housing Authority (NHA) in coordination with the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP). Former NPA terrorists are also given the option to stay in their place of origin and be given Php450,000 (USD9,368) for the renovation of their old house. From July 2018 to November 2019, Php171.6-million (USD3.5-million) in financial assistance was reportedly released to 2,882 CPP-NPA surrenderers.

The Department of National Defense guarantees that “the budget of E-CLIP is intact and ready for release, and as soon as the former rebels obtain their Joint AFP-PNP Intelligence Committee (JAPIC) clearance, they will immediately receive their benefits.” The government has lauded the more than 10,000 former NPA terrorists who have surfaced and returned to the fold of the law since the Task Force Balik-Loob (TBFL) managing the E-CLIP was organized in 2018. Of the 10,000 former NPA terrorists, only about 3,000 so far have been awarded the E-CLIP benefits due to the “very stringent vetting process implemented to ensure that the program won’t be taken advantage of.”


Malaysia has yet to craft its own national action plan on P/CVE. The actions taken by the state are based on the experiences of other ASEAN countries. Malaysia has to craft a CVE action plan that is bottom-up, taking into close consideration the nuances and complexities of violent extremism in a highly diverse society. This well-tailored CVE action plan entails reflecting the stark realities of stateless persons who provide the cheapest form of labor with no healthcare benefits, no minimum wage, and no legal protection, which are favored by business interests, and are thereby the most vulnerable to violent extremism, and terrorist recruitment and radicalization. Moreover, the government should be prepared to develop a set of mechanisms (both legal and operational) for the rehabilitation of violent extremist offenders (VEO), returnees, and deportees. The new government needs to appreciate the essential role non-state actors can play in CVE efforts. Non-state actors, consisting of civil society organisations (CSO), contribute to holistic CVE efforts, including preventive programmes and rehabilitation and reintegration (R&R).

Child Soldiers

Child soldiers in Southeast Asia have been continuously targeted for recruitment by violent extremists and terrorist groups. Child soldiers do not have access to education, thus, they experience a negative personal transformation during their time in paramilitary service. Thus, it is important that all CVE efforts should include youth leaders as important participants. The UN Security Council Resolution 2250 issued in 2015 puts youth at the center of processes and policies for the sustainable development of peace and security.

P/CVE for Female Migrant Workers

Southeast Asian female migrant workers are attracted to imbibe terrorist causes in their search for a secure sense of stability amid the challenging array of societal forces and influences at work and in their personal lives. Governments that rely on the regular remittance from overseas workers to keep their economies afloat will need to design free but mandatory programs that would require old and new applicants aspiring to work abroad, or to continue to work abroad, to all undergo at least a 5-day course on P/CVE. This intervention will dramatically reduce the recruitment and radicalization of overseas workers preyed upon by local and foreign terrorist groups that exploit the financial resources of selfless workers who can be manipulated to send their hard-earned income and/or liquidate their personal investments to finance terrorist activities.

During the last 20 years, most counterterrorism efforts have been reactive, focusing largely on military and security measures. With the increasing national security threats from both FTFs and local terrorists who take advantage of vulnerable migrant workers, governments in Southeast Asia must collaborate in spearheading a P/CVE program specifically targeted to migrant workers and their children.

Millions of migrant workers and the children they leave behind under the care of extended families back home need to undergo P/CVE workshops to prevent their children from being recruited and radicalized by violent extremists and terrorists lurking not only in schools and colleges but also online. Parent-child relationships of migrant workers are often heavily strained by the many years of geographical separation and rely on cyberspace technologies to stay connected. When many governments in Southeast Asia depend on regular remittances to keep their economies afloat, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes both an economic and moral imperative for such governments to assume responsibility in ensuring that the children left behind by said migrant workers are given proper guidance, which includes P/CVE programs.

Indonesian female migrant workers often have a low level of formal education, lack basic religious knowledge, experience intense social and individual pressures, live apart from their families, and have poor access to government services. These factors heighten their personal vulnerabilities which are then fully taken advantage of by recruiters belonging to terrorist organizations. There is an increasing pattern of women who are lured by online propaganda that preyed upon their feelings of deep marginalization and isolation as female migrant domestic workers. These female migrant workers are then exposed to radicalized teachings through social media. Despite being radicalized, these workers stay within the mold of what their community expects of them — as a daughter, wife, and mother. A clearer understanding of these specific influencing elements will facilitate a more enduring rehabilitation process. One Indonesian woman working in Hong Kong returned to Banten, in western Java, in 2015 to become the second wife of Adi Jihadi, a militant who was arrested in 2017 for purchasing arms and training in Mindanao with Isnilon Hapilon, who had been declared ISIS’s emir for Southeast Asia.

In the Philippines, the CPP-NPA communist-terrorist network deliberately targets for recruitment and radicalization the children and youth leaders in schools who have either one or both parents working as Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). The absence of parental discipline and guidance opens up the children of migrant workers to embrace radical ideologies and extremist views. Recruiters from terrorist organizations also have a preference to groom the children of migrant workers because they receive a significantly huge monthly allowance from their parents working abroad, and they are able to condition these young people to invest their financial resources and time to organize, agitate, and mobilize their peers at school to join CPP-NPA-NDF-linked youth organizations and anti-government activities. Daesh/IS-backed FTFs based in the Philippines marry Filipino women from Muslim communities that can provide them safe havens. It becomes the role of the Filipino wife of FTFs to receive and forward terrorism funds. Based on the author’s personal interviews from 2017 to 2018 in Marawi, local Daesh/IS-funded terrorists also use Filipino domestic helpers working abroad as conduits for regular remittances.

Some countries do not publish migration data or make them available to the public. For example, Singapore does not publish any data on inflow of foreign workers given the sensitivity to high dependence on migrant workers. Similarly, Malaysian data systems are not transparent. Female migrant workers are reportedly embracing radicalized forms of religion and violence after being exposed to extremist content on social media. Three women worked as domestic workers in homes across Singapore. But in their spare time, they promoted ISIS online, donated money to militants overseas, and became so radicalized that at least one was ready to die as a suicide bomber in Syria, according to Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs. The women, all Indonesian nationals, were arrested in September under Singapore’s Internal Security Act on suspicion of taking part in terror financing activities and face up to 10 years in prison and fines of up to $500,000 Singapore dollars (~USD$362,000). Most of the cases identified so far involve Indonesian nationals.

While waiting for each of the ASEAN governments to adopt a more enlightened approach, existing practices and policies concerning women and children in P/CVE need further refinement and polishing. At a broader and wider level, more attention must be applied to the realities of the experiences of these women especially that of migrant workers, and their children.

Part 1: A More Effective Counterterrorism Strategy for Indonesian Women by Acknowledging Their Motivations and Tactical Contributions

Part 2: Striving for Peace in the Philippines amidst Increased Combat-readiness and Continued Recruitment of Women and Children

Part 3: The Invisible Women and Children of Malaysia: The Vulnerability of Stateless Persons to Terrorism and Violent Extremism

The views expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD.

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence. Republications minimally require 1) credit authors and their institutions, and 2) credit to STRAT.O.SPHERE CONSULTING PTE LTD  and include a link back to either our home page or the article URL.


  • Professor Amparo Pamela Fabe is a Professor of Financial Terrorism and Transnational Organized Crime at the National Police College, Philippines. She is a specialist in Countering Violent Extremism.

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