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 and has since launching in 2015 has been rolled out in three locations around the country. Three generations of MotherSchools participants have now graduated from the programme, with a fourth 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 two additional provinces (Tyrol and Carinthia), and over 220 mothers have gone through the sessions. 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’.
The success of the first round of the MotherSchools paved the way for future MotherSchools in Austria. The first took place in 2016 in Vienna and Klagenfurt, the second in 2017 in Innsbruck and Vienna, and finally the third iteration in 2018 in Innsbruck and Vienna. The project has focused particularly on reaching migrant communities, comprising, most recently, the and has included the Chechen and Arabic.
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 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.