Digital persecution is a growing method to discriminate against Christian converts, especially women. This is one of the findings of a new gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP) report commissioned by the ministry organisation Open Doors International, which supports and strengthens persecuted Christians all over the world.
The report, titled “A web of forces: The 2023 Gender Report”, was released on International Women’s Day. With the celebration of International Women’s Day on Wednesday, 8 March, the spotlight once again falls on the plight of women and girls – especially on the African continent.
Female converts to Christianity are facing a growing persecution threat: Coercive control and surveillance through digital devices. According to Open Doors’ new report, everyday items such as smartphones and tablets are being used by families and communities to track and control the daily lives of Christians.
Control through digital persecution
Open Doors’ women’s persecution specialist, Elizabeth Lane Miller, said: “We are seeing a growth of family members exerting control over their female relatives through tracking movements, confiscating their digital items and monitoring web searches. The consequences for those women are often violent and controlling.
“We often take our privacy for granted, but their web searches and social media accounts are regularly checked up on – to then be isolated or punished because they explored a different faith.”
Key findings of the report
The 2023 report finds that Nigeria, Cameroon and Somalia are the countries where being a female will most shape how a Christian woman experiences religious persecution, due in a large part to contextually specific and intertwining cultural and conflict dynamics which normalise gender-based violence. The impact of persecution’s many interacting pressures can overwhelm, entangle and threaten the stability of Christian families.
Sub-Saharan Africa is the region where gender most shapes the experience of religious persecution for Christian women. Nearly all the sub-Saharan African countries that are part of the 2023 World Watch List (WWL) top 50 are among the countries with the most gender-specific experience of religious persecution for women.
A fundamental human right
Open Doors’ global gender persecution specialist, Helene Fisher, said: “Freedom of religion or belief is a fundamental human right, and it’s violated across many of the countries that we report on.
“The experiences of Christian women and girls are shaped by their gender. It tends to be in quite a focused manner, destroying the strengths they represent for their families. When you factor in the vulnerability of women and girls in male-biased societies, combined with familial expectations and legal restrictions, there is a web of pressures which only gets more complicated if they then choose to leave one faith and convert to another.”
Top pressures affecting Christian women and girls
Globally, Christian women and girls often find themselves caught in a particularly complex web of compounding vulnerabilities. They are not only vulnerable as Christians in the World Watch List countries, but their additional gender-determined vulnerabilities overlap and interact to a greater extent than for Christian men and boys in the same contexts. These are environments where all females experience a disadvantaged status before the law or in society, bias against their lack of education or an elevated risk of poverty.
Sexual violence is consistently chosen to target Christian women and girls across the globe. Sexual violence is often one strand in a web of other pressure points such as psychological violence, abduction, forced marriage and enforced religious dress code. From a lack of legislation on child marriage to associations of certain modes of dress that indicate sexual availability, a multiplicity of vulnerability factors can facilitate violent forms of gender-specific religious persecution.
The effectiveness of sexual violence is also due to the myriad of damaging consequences that can ensue. A web of complicit forces can worsen its impact and lead to loss of shelter, food, future opportunities and community.
One of the places that the sexual abuse of Christian women hides is targeted, religiously motivated abduction for the purposes of human trafficking.
Top five female pressure points
- Sexual violence.
- Forced marriage.
- Physical violence.
- Incarceration by family (house arrest).
- Psychological violence.
GSRP country rankings for women
Out of the top 20 countries where gender most shapes the experience of persecution for female Christians, 12 are from sub-Saharan Africa, including the four countries which rank the highest: Nigeria, Cameroon, Somalia and Sudan.
In the northern regions of Nigeria, where Christians already experience the most extreme levels of violence, female Christians are facing especially high levels of abduction, forced displacement, trafficking, killings and sexual violence. Gender-specific violence is driven primarily by Islamic militant activity in the region. High levels of internal displacement can also exacerbate the vulnerability of Christian women and girls to abduction and sexual violence.
Other countries of note in the top 20:
- India and Pakistan, where Pew Research, as well as Solotaroff and Pande, report persistent and diverse forms of violence against women and girls against a backdrop of regionally specific traditional patriarchal norms.
- Iran, where protests sparked by the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 while in police custody, detained under hijab laws, have challenged ongoing gender injustices.
- Afghanistan, where Amnesty International has documented how the Taliban has reversed much of the progress made on women’s rights since returning to power in August 2021.
Middle East and North Africa
According to the sixth GSRP report, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region was particularly identified within Open Doors’ WWL research as the region where digital persecution is sharply increasing. Digital persecution is carried out by family and community members, as well as government officials, to control digital access and monitor activity in the daily lives of Christians.
In the MENA region, digital persecution is a modern means for family members to extend control over female Christians. Regional data reveals how the generalised control of women by male family members leads to control over persecuted Christian women’s digital lives being more prevalent than for persecuted Christian men.
Phone messaging, location tracking and social media accounts can be monitored, and devices confiscated as a first step of isolation and punishment in countries such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia. The discovery of conversion via social media, digital Christian resources or Christian web searches found on devices can result in violent consequences for women and girls.
Christian women from a Muslim background in the MENA region are most at risk of forced divorce and forced marriage. The threat of forced divorce of Christians in MENA exclusively targets converts to Christianity, predominantly Christian women. Similarly, forced marriage is also largely correlated with Christian females who converted.
The report features a more detailed examination of results for the MENA region, with an emphasis on the complexity facing Christian women, and spotlights digital persecution and the experience of converts.
Christian women in MENA from a non-Christian background are especially at risk of being trapped in a web of oppression due to their gender, faith and other socio-cultural and legal factors in their lives that create vulnerability. Research shows that familial standards of fidelity and connection in societies of the MENA region often pose the greatest threat to Christians who convert from Islam.
Lynette Leibach, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa, says: “The research report’s analogy of persecution dynamics to that of a spiderweb is apt since the strands can influence every aspect of the target’s life – personal, family, community, national – to disempower, debilitate and force compliance.
“As a woman and mother, it is indeed shocking that gender-specific tactics are employed in an increasing manner against women. Through Open Doors’ partners, our aim is to ensure that no one is left alone in facing this reality. It is a significant challenge, with one in seven Christians facing persecution. It requires unison with the local Church.”
About the report
The GSRP report has been released annually since 2018. The 2023 report used data gathered by Open Doors World Watch Research for the 2023 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.
“A web of forces: The 2023 Gender Report” can be downloaded here: www.opendoors.org/thegenderreport/.
For any questions about the GSRP report or to arrange an interview, please contact Elizabeth Botha, media officer, at [email protected], 083 227 8164 or 011 888 9341.
Open Doors Southern Africa (ODSA) forms part of the Open Doors International ministry, which serves persecuted Christians in over 65 countries across the world by delivering Bibles and Christian literature, visiting persecuted Christians, discipleship and training, offering emergency aid to victims of persecution and natural disasters, and speaking out and raising awareness through advocacy.
Media release issued by Elizabeth Botha
Media officer: Open Doors Southern Africa
Tel: 083 227 8164 / (011) 888 9341
Email: [email protected]