Edit Schlaffer develops the powerful potential of mothers in preventing radicalization within their families and in becoming ambassadors for de-radicalization in their communities.
The New Idea
Frontline communities and families in extremism hotspots are often confronted with an environment characterized by discrimination, socio-economic inequality and violence. In this situation, many adolescents become vulnerable to radicalization and extremist recruitment. Understanding the strong connection between environmental factors, adolescent development and radicalization, Edit Schlaffer developed the MotherSchool model. Through trusted community leaders and NGOs, she approaches mothers who are concerned about violent extremism with regard to the safety of their children and their community. MotherSchools create a transformational experience for mothers by providing a save space where self-awareness, self-expression and self-empowerment are appreciated and encouraged. In a playful and highly interactive way, mothers learn about parenting, adolescent development and early warning signals of radicalization. This combination of personal transformation and increased capacity for action enables mothers to play a more influential and responsible role in their families, to change the communication with their children, and to become ambassadors for de-radicalization in their communities.
Edit Schlaffer perceives the involvement of mothers in countering violent extremism as the main building block of a new international security system rooted in informed, active and resilient families and communities instead of military and police interventions. She advocates for alliances between institutional stakeholders and frontline communities to create more resilience against violent extremism and to avoid further discrimination, divide and distrust.
She addresses institutional stakeholders through high profile conferences, lectures and media work, and involves them in the implementation of MotherSchools all around the world.
On the local level, Edit Schlaffer engages and trains NGOs as operational partners for the implementation of MotherSchools. She involves local institutional partners such as schools, social services and police to sustain the MotherSchools and to promote a broad local alliance against violent extremism.
Mother Schools have been successfully implemented in Africa, Asia and Europe and proved to be effective under different cultural and socio-economic conditions. MotherSchools started in 2013 and involved 1500 mothers and 225 trainers in 9 different countries so far, with new runs being planned in 8 further countries. The model is in high demand as many governments are seeking for new ways to prevent radicalization in hotspot areas. This demand opens a new path for scaling. Apart from former participants, NGOs and activists replicating the model, Edit Schlaffer aims to institutionalize the MotherSchools in cooperation with public partners such as governments, local administrations, police and social services.
Violent extremism can shortly be defined as the beliefs and actions of people who support or use violence to achieve ideological, religious or political goals. The global terrorism index 2015 reported a strong increase in deaths caused by violent extremism in the period between 2000 and 2015. In 2015, it reached the highest level ever recorded with over 30000 victims worldwide. Violent extremism thus has become a worldwide, multi-layered problem that involves and affects all levels of society. In the same period, the political response to violent extremism has been dominated by using military and police force, security intelligence and implementing more rigid security measures. The „war on terror“ framed violent extremism as an external threat to society and „extremists“ became the impersonation of evil. In this response, the role of institutional actors (governments, military, police) has been strongly emphasized, while the role of individuals, families, and communities has been largely neglected and weakened. Institutional, top-down approaches not only failed to reach their objectives in many cases, but actually worsened the situation for individuals, families and communities exposing them to discrimination, police violence or even war. As a consequence, communities lost their trust in institutional actors and further withdrew from seeking support.
The multiple factors that cause radicalization have been studied by pioneering sociologists and psychologists: traumatic experiences of violence and death, feelings of social failure, discrimination, alienation, lack of educational and occupational opportunities, and lack of purpose in life. Adolescents who are exposed to these factors are likely to experience problems in the development of their identity and role in society. The fact that they are in middle of a deep psychic and physical transformation makes them particularly vulnerable to external influence. Extremist recruiters are consciously responding to these contextual factors and the vulnerability of adolescents by seemingly providing meaning, values and opportunities. They are the ones who are “listening” to them. They invest time, gain trust, empathize and connect, provide emotional anchoring – everything a functioning family, community and society should provide to adolescents. Recruiters use social networks to connect to adolescents and then intensify their communication step-by-step, drawing them into new „peer groups“ that promote extremist world views.
The emergence of ISIS in Syria and the support it received from „foreign fighters“ coming from all around the world, raised the awareness of the international community for new recruitment methods and targets. According to a 2014 estimate by the US Department of State, over 12,000 foreigners have travelled to Syria from over 50 countries to join ISIS. Many of them were adolescents.
Therefore, violent extremism is also an “internal” problem for families and communities, and not only an external one for institutional actors. With the exception of a few professional and institutional de-radicalization and prevention programs, not many support structures are in place. And if they are in place, the question is if families and communities actually have the outspokenness and trust to contact them and ask for help. The experience of radicalization within the own family is often connected to feelings of failure and shame and is usually concealed and not communicated to the outside world. The way families deal internally with their experiences is thus an important component in the attempt to make communities more resilient to radicalization.
Edit Schlaffer founded her Vienna based NGO Women Without Borders (WWB) in 2001. At the beginning, WWB focused on women’s empowerment and female leadership. The NGO designed and implemented empowerment programs that were primarily addressing young women in countries under crisis. In this context, Edit Schlaffer critically observed how the public as well as institutional actors in the security arena perceived women as victims rather than potential contributors to security. As a response, Edit Schlaffer focused the activities of WWB on the connection between women’s empowerment, female leadership and security, and in 2008 founded the SAVE platform (Sister’s Against Violent Extremism). Since then, WWB and SAVE function as the formalized frame for different programs and projects in the security area.
The development of the MotherSchool model started in 2013 with a first pilot run in Tajikistan. It should soon become the flagship initiative of WWB. MotherSchools have been implemented in Austria, Belgium, England, India, Indonesia, Kashmir, Pakistan, Tajikistan, and Zanzibar with 1500 participants and 225 trainers in total. Further ones are planned in Bosnia, France, Israel, Jordan, Macedonia, Niger, Sweden and Uganda.
Each MotherSchool is preceded by an initial assessment to gain a detailed understanding of the local situation and to identify potential trainers, participants and supporters. Following the initial assessment, local community leaders are trained as trainers in a three-day workshop. The trainers mobilize groups of 10-20 mothers that meet weekly for a three hour module. The whole curriculum consists of ten modules that guide mothers through an empowerment journey from the self to the family, to the community, and to their role in security. The unique educational methodology is based on playful and interactive exercises that utilize body language and movement. The participating mothers build trust, express themselves, reflect on their role in their family, and gain knowledge on parenting, adolescent development and early warning signs of radicalization. The trainers are guiding the women through these exercises without presenting themselves as “experts”. The progress of the group is monitored by the coordination team in Vienna based on calls with trainers and protocols.
The feedback from mothers shows that the experience and learnings from the MotherSchool translate very fast into real transformations of communication patterns in families that are also noticed by fathers and children. A communication that is more open, emphatic and dialogue-oriented encourages family members to share their experiences and feelings instead of concealing them. A successful change in communication patterns may trigger changes in gender roles and hierarchic family structures. As a result, mothers gain more access to their children’s thinking and development. They are in a position to respond to early warning signals of radicalization and to provide support to their children.
Former participants who wish to become active beyond their own families receive the opportunity to be trained as trainers for MotherSchools and to become ambassadors for de-radicalization in their communities. Edit Schlaffer is involving stakeholders such as schools, police, and social services to embed and sustain the MotherSchools in the local communities. The emerging stakeholder networks sustain the MotherSchool model and provide support structures for mothers and families.
Edit Schlaffer transfers the experiences and evidence continually gathered through her work with mothers to security professionals and the wider public using different formats such as conferences, lectures and workshops. She utilizes the power of testimonials of women concerned about violent extremism to promote a counter-narrative on security that starts with empowering families and communities.
In the context of SAVE, she is organizing a series of public dialogues between mothers of „victims“ and “perpetrators“ in an attempt to overcome boundaries between nations, ethnicities and social ascriptions. Edit Schlaffer also acts as an ambassador for her mission and is prominently featured in newspapers and publications on the topic of countering violent extremism.
For mainstreaming her programs and influencing international security stakeholders, Edit Schlaffer works with many institutional partners including the US Department of State, the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), ministries (UK, France, Austria), embassies, or the European Network of De-radicalization. In addition, Edit Schlaffer is highly networked with NGOs and women’s empowerment activists internationally.
As demand for her solution is growing rapidly, Edit is preparing her organization for the scaling challenge. She sees the potential to institutionalize MotherSchools on the local level in cooperation with administrations, police and social services. The MotherSchool model will be developed into new directions. Edit and her team are now starting to develop a curriculum addressing the needs of fathers complementary to the MotherSchools. Edit Schlaffer also plans to implement cross-border MotherSchools to emphasize the bridging between mothers with different cultural backgrounds. A long-term vision is the creation of an international Academy that could host MotherSchools as well as trainings and conferences for NGOs and institutional stakeholders, and to create a global online community.
Edit Schlaffer studied sociology and communication theory and received her PhD at the early age of 22. She initially aimed to become a foreign correspondent, but eventually decided to become a sociologist to gain a deeper understanding of society. Edit Schlaffer started to work as a sociologist in the 1970ies when the women’s movement had its momentum. She soon found herself in the middle of this movement that was challenging different forms of discrimination against women in society, be it at home, in education or at work. She noticed that the new self-confidence of women to speak and write about topics relevant to their specific life circumstances caused obvious unrest among the male dominated academia elite. Being very conscious about the struggle of women for attention and recognition within and outside of academia, she started to work on controversial topics relevant for the women’s movement such as domestic violence. Together with others, Edit pioneered the concept of woman protection centers in Austria to help woman to escape from their perpetrators and restart life in a save environment. The most important step in her career as a sociologist was to become the co-director of a newly found Ludwig Boltzmann research unit in the social sciences, where she continued with her research on women’s everyday live, gender equality, and the women’s movement.
Edit Schlaffer witnessed the situation of female refugees during the Bosnian war and the war in Afghanistan. Edit worked in refugee camps of Bosnian female refugees in Austria and realized that many of the women were traumatized by war, and rape. She brought the topic on the political agenda in Austria and achieved that rape as a weapon of war was accepted as reason to grant asylum. Later, spending several months in refugee camps at the Afghan-Pakistani border, she observed how officials failed to respond to the needs and problems of female refugees who were excluded from many services and activities. At the same time, she observed the brave struggle of women in the Afghan underground, who were crossing the border to Pakistan to get food for their families.
These experiences inspired Edit Schlaffer to quit her academic career and to found her NGO Women Without Borders in 2001. At that time, Edit Schlaffer had a wealth of experience in working with women around the world, particularly in countries in crisis. From the beginning her work relied on strong networks with activists and women in these countries. Edit Schlaffer managed to receive initial grants from Austrian public bodies and through her cooperation with the US state department that allowed her to fund a series of women’s empowerment programs in different countries as well as associated research projects. When Edit Schlaffer started to implement the first trainings on security issues, she noticed that in the framework of conventional security concepts, women were usually assigned the role of victims rather than active and empowered contributors. This insight became the foundation of her refined mission to empower women to become active contributors in the security arena and finally led to the design of the MotherSchool model.