Covid-19 is fuelling a growing, hidden “shadow pandemic” of gender-based violence, abduction and trafficking, directed towards Christian women and girls around the world. This is one of the findings of a new report commissioned by the ministry organisation Open Doors International, which supports and strengthens persecuted Christians all over the world.
The report, entitled “Same faith, different persecution: WWR 2021 gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP)”, was published ahead of International Women’s Day, which is celebrated worldwide on Monday 8 March.
Open Doors Southern Africa also hosted an online women’s prayer event on Sunday evening, 7 March, to celebrate International Women’s Day. During this event, testimonies were shared from women living for Christ in some of the most dangerous places on earth. The well-known singer and channel director of TBN Africa, Loyiso Bala, who is Open Doors’ ambassador, was the special guest at the women’s prayer event.
The spotlight is currently on the plight of women and girls – especially on the African continent – with the shocking news that about 300 girls were kidnapped on Friday 26 February 2021 from a school in northern Nigeria. This happened just nine days after the kidnapping of 42 people from another school in the same region.
Vulnerability of Christian women and girls
The report states that the Covid-19 pandemic has made Christian women and girls even more vulnerable than before. During lockdown, they face persecution and opposition from within their own families and communities – who are hostile to their faith.
On top of this, states and militants have exploited the current situation with Covid-19, “weaponizing women’s bodies to inflict harm on their minority Christian communities and limit growth of the Church”.
The report looks at the nature and extent of gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP) towards both women and men over twelve months, covering the period from October 2019 to September 2020. It focuses largely on the 50 countries highlighted in Open Doors’ annual World Watch List, where Christians face the worst persecution and oppression.
Key findings of the report
Among the key findings for women are:
- A major increase in, largely hidden, psychological and physical violence towards Christian convert women. According to the report, “vulnerable converts are at greater risk when they’re locked inside in confinement with their families, who may abuse them for leaving the family’s or community’s religion to convert to Christianity”.
- A significant spread in trafficking of women and girls, forcing them into marriages or sexual slavery. In Gulf States, for instance, “lockdowns have reduced the number of people on the streets, making it both easier to target Christian women and girls, and harder to recover them”.
- A continued rise in reports of rape and other sexual violence. One unnamed persecution worker in the Central African Republic says: “This violence is a persecution weapon, a way of making Christian women vulnerable and also traumatising the community.”
Among the major forms of persecution for men are:
- Christian men facing more extreme physical harm or even death. Church leaders are especially targeted as examples to show other Christians the treatment they can expect.
- Economic harassment or imprisonment. By limiting their ability to provide, the entire family is rendered more vulnerable.
- Military/militia conscription. For men, forced conscription into the military or militias rose by 40%, forced into service against their consciences.
Families under attack
According to the report, the pressure points faced by men and women differ, but the aims are often the same.
“The very notion of family is, by implication, under attack… Persecutors are deliberately taking advantage of what the religious community holds to as a holy institution and an intimate relational act. Sexual violence, trafficking and forced marriages are actually weaponizing women’s bodies to limit growth of the Church.
“While, for males, removing or limiting their ability to provide for their families, weakens their dependent families and leaves them vulnerable, as well as shames the man/boy who is unable to provide.”
Trafficking and sexual slavery
Perpetrators of the forms of gender-specific religious persecution vary from region to region. Looking at trafficking and sexual slavery:
- In the Middle East, North and sub-Saharan Africa, extremist groups such as Boko Haram use “ideologically motivated grooming”, forced marriages and kidnapping as a tool to Islamise girls and young women and deplete the Christian community.
- Across parts of Asia, girls from poor Christian communities are singled out and trafficked to China for arranged marriages, where sex-selective abortion has led to a shortage of young women.
- Criminal gangs and drug cartel leaders in Latin America threaten to kill Christian families if they refuse to give up their daughters. This acts as way of silencing churches and church leaders who are challenging the effective rule of these gangs over their villages.
Ms Helene Fisher, co-author of the report, says: “It’s time that the faith factor is acknowledged. While race and gender are acknowledged as vulnerabilities in conflict zones, a person’s faith generally is not. On International Women’s Day, we need policymakers to understand the opposition Christian women around the world face, as they attempt to peacefully live out their chosen faith.”
About the report
The GSRP report has been released annually since 2018. The 2021 report used data gathered by Open Doors World Watch Research for the 2020 World Watch List. Regionally based experts collected primary data from global caregivers, church leaders, focus groups and regional experts. Open Doors’ gender team analysed this data to reveal how Christian men and women in these countries experience various forms of pressure, to highlight overall persecution trends by gender.
Link to download the complete “Same faith, different persecution: WWR 2021 gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP)” report:
Photograph: Hajaratu, a Christian widow from northern Nigeria, was a victim of persecution because of her faith. She tragically lost her baby daughter, who drowned in a river when she had to flee from an attack by Fulani militants.