Persecution of Christian women worldwide has risen dramatically in the last year as a new study released by Open Doors International found that forced marriages have increased by 16%, and physical violence against women has increased 31%. Global persecution watchdog group Open Doors International released the 2021 “Same Faith, Different Persecution” report on gender-specific religious persecution to detail the plight of the global persecuted Church and how this especially affects women. Gender Specific Religious Persecution (GSRP) against women has risen to the highest level recorded in the three years since the report was first issued in 2018, and women now face a higher potential risk of religious persecution than men.
Helene Fisher, a global gender persecution specialist for Open Doors International and one of the authors of the report, said that the increased threat to women is often because women have fewer rights in most of the top 50 countries where religious persecution is rife. “Because women have fewer rights and fewer protections, they’re just an easier target,” Fisher said. “They can also be targeted with impunity, which means that if there is a population that doesn’t want the Christians to thrive, they can go after the women and girls. And there aren’t consequences for those aggressors. So, it is a question of the women and girls having fewer rights for legal protections. Women are more vulnerable in the society, and they are just the easiest way to disable the Christian population.”
Fisher and the other authors of the report, Eva Brown, Elizabeth Lane Miller and Rachel Morley, highlight that faith, combined with their gender, puts women more at risk. The five most common “pressure points” among women in the top 50 countries on the Open Doors World Watch List for religious persecution are forced marriage, sexual violence, physical violence, psychological violence and forced divorce. Each category increased since last year’s study. Ninety percent of the top 50 countries where Christians are most persecuted report forced marriage as a pressure point, and 86% of countries report sexual violence. Reports of psychological violence among women in these countries rose from 40% to 74% from the 2020 report to the 2021 report.
Women are often used as pawns to target the Christian community. Persecutors often target the daughters of pastors to weaken the core of the church community. “It is a well-documented fact that rape can be used as a weapon of war,” the report reads. “Women’s bodies essentially become the second battlefield. The ‘capture’ of women in a community demonstrates to the men that they were unable to ‘protect’ them. Persecutors are seen as ‘dominant.’ In the midst of using these women as pawns, of course, real women are violently abused.” Targeting women, the child bearers, and forcing them to convert is a tactic used to destabilize the future generation of the Church, the development of families and the raising of Christian children.
Trafficking women as a form of religious persecution is on the rise, particularly in Asia and Africa, the report finds. Christian refugees or internally displaced peoples are especially vulnerable to this. “Trafficking as a form of religious persecution continues to pose a threat in all regions on the World Watch List and it is rising, particularly in Africa and Asia. Globally, 17 countries (up from 10 the previous year) reported incidents of trafficked women and girls,” the report adds. “Countries engaged in conflict were most likely to report instances of sexual violence and trafficking.” Extremist groups in the Middle East and North Africa often weaponize trafficking by forcing or seducing Christians into marriage or sexual slavery and forced conversions to Islam.
Women who are able to escape their captors often struggle to reintegrate into their home society due to shame, stigma and damaged self-worth. A young Nigerian girl named Ester was abducted by Boko Haram and was impregnated by one of her captors, the report chronicles. When she returned home, she was shunned, and the community called her baby “Boko” after the militants who abducted her. This tactic of shame is sometimes part of the extremists’ goal. Fisher said the narrative in Christian communities in response to this should use biblical truth to fight the false narrative Islam seeks to spread through the shame of rape and sexual exploitation of women. Doing so will foil the persecutors’ strategies, she said.
“Our value is not determined by what has been done to us, but is determined by what has been done for us by Jesus Christ. Just holding on to that truth can radically change the future of a community,” Fisher shared. In China, the shortage of women due to gender-biased sex selection of males and the one-child birth policy has led to human trafficking webs that force women into marriages to produce male children. The U.S. State Department reported that traffickers increasingly sent girls to China for arranged marriages from impoverished Christian communities. In its 2020 Trafficking Persons profile on Pakistan, the U.S. State Department noted that “traffickers increasingly targeted impoverished Christian communities to send females to China for arranged marriages.”
The persecution of men and women presents itself very differently due to structural vulnerabilities. Since women are more confined to the home, their persecution is less visible in nature. “The religious persecution against men is focused, severe, and visible, whereas the religious persecution of women tends to be complex, hidden and violent,” Fisher explained. Men are more likely to face imprisonment and are pressured by the government in the workplace or public sphere. But women are often held hostage in their own homes, Fisher stated. Men are also likely to be killed or forced to join the military, while women are likely to be trafficked, forced to flee the country and have an increased chance of being abducted.
“When they are going after the women, they can accomplish the same ends in a much less visible manner. Now, if it’s less visible, it’s less of a risk to the persecutor …,” Fisher said. “We find that a lot of the ways women and girls are targeted tends to be hidden because it’s in the domestic sphere.” The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated the situation as levels of persecution, especially domestically, have risen to produce a “shadow pandemic.” The pandemic has also led to a rise in abductions due to decreased security. “We have noticed of course that COVID has made the vulnerable even more vulnerable,” Fisher shared. In Latin American and sub-Saharan Africa, criminal groups especially intensified criminal activity against Christians during the vulnerabilities of the pandemic and lockdowns.
Oftentimes, Christians in heavily persecuted countries are met with backlash from the government when they report persecution inflicted on them. When governments turn a blind eye to violence, it takes “tremendous tenacity” from the Christians to even be acknowledged. Fisher said “We do find that around the globe, we have so many cases it is difficult for Christians to bring a case of individual attacks against someone.” The attacks against Christian women especially target the family unit, marriage and the individual by targeting the woman’s worth. The GSRP report concludes that a multi-faceted solution is required to address such a complex problem. Research from the World Watch List shows more than 340 million Christians globally endure high levels of persecution and discrimination for their faith, which amounts to one in eight Christians around the world.
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