Alarming increase in persecution of Christian women and girls

Henry

According to Open Doors’ latest report, female converts to Christianity face a growing threat of persecution. Persecution is complex, hidden and violent for women and girls – characterized by sexual violence and forced marriage, as well as insidious, invisible violence behind closed doors.

On the other side of the same coin, the persecution of men and boys is focused, visible and serious – characterized by targeted physical violence, including lethal violence, as well as economic and state pressure.

These are some of the findings in the ministry organization Open Doors International’s report on gender-specific religious persecution.

The report, entitled “Insecurity: The 2024 Gender Report”, was issued earlier this month on International Women’s Day and put the spotlight anew on the plight of women and girls, especially on the African continent.

Men are often targeted with persecution for their power as leaders and financial providers, and women for their sexual and family honor. In countries where Christians experience acute levels of persecution because of their faith – whether it is fueled by violent religious groups, family members or other drivers of religious persecution – a person’s gender is one of the factors that determines the type of persecution they face. be stared at.

Main pressure points

In all the countries on the World Watch List (WWL), it is common for women and girls to experience persecution in the private sphere, often behind closed doors or perpetrated by people they know in their existing communities and relationships.

This year, faith-based forced marriages were identified as a risk in 84% of the WWL countries – a worryingly common practice. Forced marriage is a form of exploitation and control, and the risk is intertwined with sexual violence. This is how young Muslim men in Cameroon, for example, in the midst of the violent insecurity in the north of the country, may overpower women at markets and take them away. They are kept for weeks, even months, to rape and impregnate them, which means the women then have to marry them. They hide the girls in distant villages, and the girls then do not have the financial means to return to their own villages.

Sexual violence and forced marriages are used as means of intimidation and control, and these strategies are aimed at preventing Christian women and girls from living out their faith in Christ.

In some parts of Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Kyrgyzstan and Mozambique, the kidnapping of brides based on faith is a big risk. Christian women and girls are kidnapped for forced marriages with soldiers and other non-Christian men, often Muslim men.

Women and girls who have converted from another faith, such as Islam, across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA region) experience the risk of being forced to marry a non-Christian man who has some religious authority or is committed to his faith, in the hope that he will influence her to reject her faith. It also includes young girls who are forced to marry much older men.

Top five pressure points for women:

  1. Forced marriages
  2. Sexual violence
  3. Physical violence
  4. Psychological violence
  5. Kidnapping

According to the report, the average number of pressure points per country for women and girls in 2024 is now 8.4 compared to 6.6 pressure points per country for men and boys.

Christian men and boys not spared

Men and boys are particularly at risk of faith-related physical violence in 39 of the 50 WWL countries, places where Christians experience serious hostility because of their religious affiliation.

In many of the countries studied, church leaders are predominantly male. Thus they are exposed to specific and violent persecution for their role as leaders and spiritual providers for the faith community. In countries like Colombia, pastors are forced to flee their homes due to the risk of attacks and extortion.

Men’s role as “protector” is strategically undermined by groups that target male heads of households with repeated acts of torture, increasing pressure to reject their faith and impacting their ability to keep their families safe. Even children can be targets of physical violence, with reports of primary school boys being assaulted for being Christians.

In a military context and for those who converted from a different religious background, the risk of physical abuse and torture is even higher and the cost even greater because they have chosen the Christian faith. In eastern DRC, Christian men and boys are subjected to recruitment by militia groups, targeted kidnappings and murder.

Psychological violence is another leading form of persecution for men and boys. As part of the psychological pressure applied to Christian men in MENA, they are forced to attend Friday prayer sessions and even to go on a forced hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The impact of repeated cycles of violence, both physical and emotional, cannot be underestimated. This causes long-term psychological damage to Christian men and boys. The ripple effect of this extends to their families, communities and churches.

Top five pressure points for men:

  1. Physical violence
  2. Psychological violence
  3. Imprisonment by the government
  4. Economic harassment at work or their businesses
  5. Military or militia service that conflicts with their conscience

Other findings of the report

The 2024 report also reveals the following:

Insecure contexts and associated violence through economic collapse, natural disasters, political instability and conflict exacerbate existing vulnerabilities, exacerbating certain forms of gender-specific religious violence. Violence serves as a spark that exposes and exacerbates existing vulnerabilities. Correspondingly, faith-related sexual violence for women and physical violence for men, including lethal violence, are more common in contexts where serious violence occurs. Violent forms of insecurity such as religiously targeted violence, armed conflict and criminal violence can lead to impoverishment, forced uprooting and the normalization of violence.

Marginalized Christians, especially women, can be particularly vulnerable in unsafe contexts such as places where conflict occurs, forced uprooting and criminal violence. Those who are already vulnerable are at greater risk when violence escalates. Women belonging to religious minorities are often such a group.

Violent insecurity leaves an indelible mark on communities for decades. Even when the violence formally stops, men and women from marginalized communities continue to face comprehensive challenges. This can include trauma, forced uprooting and continued marginalization when communities restructure, all of which can be influenced by religion and gender.

Lynette Leibach, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa, says no prosecution happens by chance.

“It is intentional, multi-layered and targets the perceived value of men, women and children in society to tear down the religious minority. What is particularly worrying is that vulnerable girls and women are targeted by forced marriage as a way to prevent them from living out their Christian faith.

“That is why it is essential to create awareness about the reality that so many marginalized Christians, especially women, face. These findings call for action.”

“Insecurity: The 2024 Gender Report” can be downloaded here.