While our research for the 2019 World Watch List shows that gendered persecution is particularly prevalent in Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Colombia, and the Central African Republic, here’s a quick look at what’s happening to female believers in several of the countries on the 2019 World Watch List:
The exposure of Christian women in Egypt to discrimination, threats of violence and aggression occurs on multiple levels. Broader political, socio-economic and cultural factors ranging from domestic violence to recent increased Islamist radicalism and political upheaval also provide a context for how Christian women in Egypt are treated. It’s is clear that the intersection between gender and religion in Egypt is leveraged to deliberately intimidate and weaken the church there.
Women are mostly victim to abduction, rape and divorce. An Open Doors researcher notes: “Some believers will also face the challenge of living without marriage. In Ethiopia, women comprise the majority of churches. “But, these women would not find husbands. And the community and their relatives will pressure/insult them,” church leaders explained.
Christian women in Iraq and Iraqi Kurdistan face compounded vulnerability from both cultural inequalities and religious persecution. The situation of all women in Iraq is exacerbated by the current conflict and insecurity of the region. The targeting of Christian women in Iraq can be deliberately used as a strategy to weaken or even destroy the church in the short and long term.
After decades of armed conflict and organized crime, coupled with a strongly “macho” culture, women in Colombia continue to face a great deal of violence and pressure. While this is not necessarily a direct result of their Christian faith, women face danger when their faith compels them to not submit to armed and criminal group. In addition, for those who are from indigenous communities, becoming a Christian can be seen as a betrayal of the indigenous beliefs and way of life, prompting action from the community against women and girls who convert.
Women in the Central African Republic (CAR) have gone from a traditional, pre-colonial position of being viewed as cherished educators of the next generation with economic influence to being deeply disadvantaged members of society. In a country with the world’s second-lowest gross domestic product, they face violence and exploitation, including strategic mass rape by armed groups and sexual exploitation by peacekeepers.
They also have the lowest levels of female literacy and the second-highest rate of child marriage in the world. Even in the church, widespread cohabitation and the blaming and suspicion of women leaves them deeply vulnerable in a community where they should be safest, particularly if they have been traumatized by war and sexual violence. This undermines the entire Christian community, leaving it far more vulnerable to external pressures because its own core is fragile.
A journalist who conducted an in-depth investigation of the situation for Christian females in Tunisia comments: “Tunisian Christians face discrimination and targeting that is often obscure and hidden to the public eye. It affects their day-to-day lives. Because of their Christian identities, many experience job insecurity, abandonment from family, friends and even fiancés. They are victims of verbal, mental and physical abuse.”
Women and girls have often been abducted and subjected to sexual assault and rape—the common practice of both Boko Haram and Fulani Muslim herdsmen. Many are also forced into marriage with non-Christians.
Laws that permit under-age marriage in some states (as well the existence of cultural and religious norms that discourage girls from attending school) only contributes to this problem. The persecution of women and girls has a detrimental effect on the church and Christian families. In addition to the great emotional toll and social cost, in some communities where widows are the main bread winners of the famil, such persecution of women also affects the economic well-being of the community.
Horrific statistics continue to indicate that an estimated 700 Pakistani Christian girls and women are abducted each year, often raped and then forcefully married to Muslim men. This involves forced conversions as well, and if a Christian family is bold enough to challenge the abduction and marriage, they often face accusations of harassing the “voluntarily converted” girl and her new family. A report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace in Pakistan found that at least 1,000 girls belonging to Christian and Hindu communities are forced to marry Muslim men every year.
The forms of persecution women and girls are particularly subject to include molestation, rape, physical and verbal abuse, attempted murder, forced participation in Hindu rituals; isolation, and expulsion from their home. Bajrang Dal, the youth wing of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, has announced the launch of the “bahu lao-beti bachao” campaign. Under it, they “protect Hindu boys who marry Muslim or Christian girls” and create awareness among Hindu families “to protect their girls from falling in love or getting married to Muslim or Christian boys.”
Persecution is gender-blind, especially in this country. Given the very weak role women play in Afghan society, women who convert to the Christian faith are prone to even more pressure and harassment than men. However, because conversions are kept as secret as possible, women are able to live their newfound faith, bringing their husbands and whole families to Christ.
Christian women and girls are also subjected to physical violence, but it comes gradually after emotional and mental torture. In an initial phase, they are emotionally tortured by immediate family members (such as husband, in-laws and parents). Gradually, the mental and physical torture starts until finally they are regarded as social outcasts by family and community.
This process makes them vulnerable and victims of sexual oppression. Nepal is a patriarchal society where girls have less opportunities. Education and exposure to wider society are minimal. Females are limited within the boundaries of home with a large amount of household duties. Those who become Christians do so mainly through witnessing healings and miracles in their own or closest family life.
Due to cultural reasons, new female converts find it more difficult to follow their faith. Furthermore, women and girls are often subject to cultural dress codes or certain traditions (for example, in Hindu communities, to continue wearing certain religious symbols, etc.). If the female convert comes from a Muslim background and clings to her newfound faith, she is more at risk of being forced into marriage with a Muslim than a male convert.
When Christian women and girls—not just converts—are subject to persecution, their families are more reluctant to send them out for any church-related work again. Also, if there has been any kind of sexual assault due to their faith, most often it would be considered a shame on the whole family—also impacting those girls’ prospects for marriage in the village.