The Taliban takeover in Afghanistan, drug-related religious persecution and the Covid-19 impact are some of the main factors fuelling a fast-growing, often “invisible” 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, titled “Invisible: The Gender Report 2022”, was released on International Women’s Day. With the celebration of International Women’s Day on Tuesday 8 March, the spotlight once again falls on the plight of women and girls – especially on the African continent.
Christian women who are victims of gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP) in areas like sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), Asia, Latin America and Afghanistan live in fear of the threat of sexual violence, forced marriage, forced divorce and being hid from society.
Visible versus hidden
GSRP dynamics typically affecting men are focused and visible. By contrast, women experience patterns and forms of persecution which are complex and hidden. Both are marked by violence, but Christian men typically face more severe and even lethal violence, whereas the insidious violence faced by women tends to be invisible and long-lasting.
The report states that the Covid-19 pandemic has made Christian women and girls even more vulnerable than before. During lockdown, they faced persecution and opposition from within their own families and communities – who are hostile to their faith.
The report looks at the nature and extent of GSRP towards both women and men over twelve months, covering the period from October 2020 to September 2021. The focus is 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:
- Gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP) is endemic, strategic and intensified through conflict, crime and crisis. Persecutors exploit socio-cultural norms and values, often embedded within or facilitated by the legal system, to pressurise Christian men and women and, ultimately, weaken the Christian community.
- The persecution of Christian women and girls targets them as sexual objects and vehicles of shame. Sexual violence, forced marriage, and trafficking stalks marginalised Christian women and girls across diverse global regions, often as a means of punishing and shaming Christian families and communities. Widely viewed to be of lesser worth, their child-bearing capabilities and sexual purity are targeted. They are further vulnerable to being trafficked as brides particularly within Asian countries, or sexually enslaved by extremist groups in Africa who view them as trophies of war able to bear future fighters.
- The drug-trafficking industry exacerbates GSRP dynamics facing Christians. The power and pervasive control of cartels and criminal gangs in some regions creates an opportunity for the religious persecution of Christians through drug-related gender-based violence, including physical and psychological manipulation through coerced drug use. Drug-generated incapacitation can be used to facilitate the abuse of Christian women and girls, as well as abduction for the purposes of sexual slavery and forced prostitution. The forced recruitment of Christians into drug-related criminal activities entrenches drug abuse and alienates young people from their communities.
- Global crises escalate the vulnerability of Christian men and women, intensifying gender-specific religious persecution. New opportunities to harm unwanted Christian populations are created by global crises, and can occur within wide-ranging contexts such as conflict, criminality, parallel religious legal systems or even those making positive steps towards gender equality. Acute situations, whether the Taliban take-over in Afghanistan or the Covid-19 pandemic, serve to accentuate the vulnerability of the most vulnerable and thereby intensify gender-specific persecution trends.
- Under the Taliban’s all-male, highly conservative Islamic government in Afghanistan, women from religious minorities, such as Christianity, are especially vulnerable. If discovered, unmarried females are used as wives and mothers to bear a new generation of Taliban fighters.
- Since the Covid-19 pandemic began, avenues to harm Christian women have widened. The crisis surrounding the pandemic had exacerbated social, cultural, economic and other structural vulnerabilities for women. During the Covid-19 lockdowns millions of people – primarily women and children – became more vulnerable overnight. Locked in with their abusers, with state resources diverted to handle the pandemic, victims feared the inevitable. According to a United Nations report, women have experienced consistently higher rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse since the pandemic began.
Most important pressure points
According to the report, the pressure points faced by men and women differ, but the aims are often the same.
The top ten ranking pressure points affecting Christian women and girls are: Sexual violence, forced marriages, physical violence, psychological violence, incarceration by family (house arrest), abduction, forced divorces, verbal violence, denied access to social community/networks and denied custody of children.
The top five ranking pressure points affecting Christian men and boys are: Physical violence, psychological violence, economic harassment, imprisonment and military/militia.
Seek justice for women and girls
Ms Helene Fisher, co-author of the report, says: “The global Church should openly acknowledge the extent and severity of violence against Christian women and girls, especially in communities under pressure for their faith. We must pray for women and girls who are doubly vulnerable due to their gender and faith, and advocate on behalf of women and girls facing this double vulnerability.
“We must seek justice for women and girls facing any form of discrimination, persecution or violence, by propagating a Biblical understanding of God’s heart for justice, and the dignity of all humans. Women and girls must be empowered to access justice, in order to hold perpetrators to account.”
According to Dr Lydia Meshoe, senior member of the national executive committee of the African Christian Democratic Party and president of the empowerment organisation Women of Destiny, women throughout the world are the most important sector of every society and must be treated with dignity, love and care. “We call on the Church to protect women and speak up for them. We call on governments to stop the persecution and killing of women. Enough is enough! They must be allowed to practise their faith without interference.”
Leigh Beukes, president of the Trinity Methodist Church Women’s Auxiliary, added: ‘’We pray and think of the plight of women in South Africa and all over the world. The killings, persecution and abuse – our prayers go out to those unsung heroines, many of them have been silenced prematurely.”
About the report
The GSRP report has been released annually since 2018. The 2022 report used data gathered by Open Doors World Watch Research for the 2022 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.
Visit www.opendoors.org.za to view the full 2022 World Watch List, the top 50 country profiles and persecution statistics.
For any questions about the GSRP report or to arrange an interview, please contact Elizabeth Botha, Media and Advocacy Officer, at [email protected], 083 227 8164 or 011 888 9341.
Photo 1: Esther, a Christian woman from Nigeria, was a victim of persecution because of her faith. Here she is with her two children.
Photo 2: A Christian woman with Covid-19 relief aid in Myanmar.
Open Doors Southern Africa (ODSA) forms part of the Open Doors International ministry, which serves persecuted Christians in over 60 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 and Advocacy Officer: Open Doors Southern Africa
Tel: 083 227 8164 / (011) 888 9341
Email: [email protected]