Despite widespread concern about violent extremism and radicalisation around the globe, prevention strategies often neglect vital tools: communities, families, and mothers of at-risk children. In the hopes of redressing the balance, Women without Borders (WwB) developed the ‘MotherSchools: Parenting for Peace’ Model, which aims to empower mothers to play an active role in the prevention of radicalisation and the building of community resilience. MotherSchools Austria was among the first MotherSchools programmes implemented in Europe in 2015 and has since rolled out in five locations around the country. Six generations of MotherSchools participants have now graduated from the programme, with a seventh currently in the preparatory stages.
Radicalisation, extremism, and terrorism have been a chief concern for European policymakers in the twenty-first century. The increasing influence of radical groups in Europe and across the world couple with an increased incidence of terrorist acts have prompted many governments, academics, and activists to spend more energy and resources on combatting violent extremism. Yet prevention strategies in Austria and Europe as a whole have too often focused on bolstering security forces, first-responders, and military action against radical groups at home and abroad. Insufficient attention has been paid to process of radicalisation in concerned and affected communities, and the long-term causes and early warning signs of radicalisation have tended to be neglected. So-called ‘soft power’ strategies, which focus on communication and persuasion rather than force, have received inadequate attention and funding. Austria has been no exception to this rule: in 2015, just four per cent of the security budget was spent on initiatives aimed at prevention and deradicalisation.
The MotherSchools programme came into being because Women without Borders (WwB) believes that family relationships and communication are the key to helping young people at risk of radicalisation. The Model focuses on empowering mothers to develop better communicative relationships with their children, building their confidence and capacity to address violent extremism and other taboo topics head on. It has been implemented in countries across the world and has so far seen over 2000 mothers graduate from the programme.
MotherSchools Austria was launched in Vienna in 2015. Since then, the programme has been rolled out to four additional provinces (Tyrol, Styria, Carinthia, Lower Austria), and over 300 mothers have gone through the sessions. MotherSchools Austria is the first programme of its kind in the country and has been recognised by the Austrian government as a best practice approach to community-based prevention and security strategies. At the 2018 Prevention Summit in Vienna, WwB founder and executive director Edit Schlaffer held the civil society keynote on the significance of the newly-published ‘Austrian Strategy for Deradicalisation and the Prevention of Extremism’. This new national strategy, co-written by WwB and a number of other non-governmental organisations, takes into account the importance of civil society for prevention and deradicalisation and recognises for the first time the vital impact initiatives like the MotherSchools Model are having on communities threatened by toxic ideologies.
The success of the first round of the MotherSchools paved the way for future MotherSchools in Austria, moving from Vienna to Graz, Innsbruck, St. Pölten and Villach. A total of five iterations have been successfully implemented thus far in Austria. The project has focused particularly on reaching migrant communities, including mothers from Afghanistan, Chechnya, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. The following sections outline further details of MotherSchools in Austria, as it has progressed since 2015.
MotherSchools Graz, Villach, St. Pölten | 2021
In 2021, due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Women without Borders organised three separate ceremonies to graduate the last cohort of mothers in Graz, Villach and St. Pölten. The mothers from Villach graduated together with the first FatherSchools alumni in Villach´s Parkhotel. The mothers in Graz met at the Kreuzkirche and celebrated together with their families, Women without Borders, our partners from Verein Omega and Roswitha Müller, the councillor for integration of the city of Graz. Due to Covid-19 restrictions the group of St.Pölten was acclaimed with an online graduation including virtual welcoming speeches from Austria´s minister for women, family youth and integration, Susanne Raab.
MotherSchools Vienna, St. Pölten, & Graz | 2019-2020
In 2020 MotherSchools participants from Vienna and St. Pölten graduated at the Belvedere in Vienna. Thanks to the generous support of Director Dr. Stella Rollig the mothers, teachers, notetakers and project partners could enjoy this unique environment to celebrate their achievements. The graduates from Styria graduated in Graz. Participants had various backgrounds, representing countries like Syria, Iraq, Chechnya, Romania, Italy, Armenia, and Afghanistan.
MotherSchools Tyrol | 2018-2019
In December 2018, Women without Borders held its first joint MotherSchools graduation ceremony in Austria. The class of 2019, as the third generation of MotherSchools in the country, brought together Chechen, Somali, Iraqi, Syrian, Yemeni, and Palestinian graduates in the mountains of Tyrol. Under the metaphoric title ‘breaking through the clouds’, this alpine get-together in Innsbruck saw the mothers unite across cultures and bond over their shared experiences as Parenting for Peace graduates and common mission to safeguard their homes and communities. The project was made possible with the generous support of Austria’s Federal Ministry for Europe, Integration, and Foreign Affairs (BMEIA).
MotherSchools Vienna | 2015-2016
The first round was organised in collaboration with the Beratungsstelle Extremismus alongside a number of other Vienna-based organisations and received financial support from the Austrian Ministry for Social Affairs (BMASK), the Ministry for Education and Women (BMBF), and Wider die Gewalt, an Austrian initiative working to address domestic violence. Four MotherSchools groups were convened with women from a range of backgrounds, including the Chechen, Turkish, and Bosnian communities. The graduation ceremony, which took place on International Women’s Day, attracted attention from both the public and the media, with almost 150 guests attending the accompanying event, ‘Global Mothers Security Exchange’.