IN PROCLAIMING that “An equal world is an enabled world,” International Women’s Day (IWD) 2020, which is marked on Sunday, urges us to celebrate the many areas in which women have been empowered across the globe. And we do.
Yet a much more sombre note is sounded this weekend in the Open Doors report The Hidden Face of Persecution: The targeted abuse of Christian women worldwide, published to coincide with IWD.
Open Doors’ research into gender-specific religious persecution finds little to celebrate and much to alarm us. It exposes the high level of persecution faced by Christian women, in many societies in which Christianity is a minority faith.
Fifty countries are identified on the World Watch List as the most difficult countries this year in relation to faith-targeted persecution. These countries provide the focus for investigating the characteristics, tactics, and dynamics of religious persecution. The grave reality is that to be a Christian believer in these countries can be to encounter discrimination, exclusion, coercion, violence, and even martyrdom.
Both men and women undergo suffering for their faith. But, in disaggregating the data by gender, this report unearths disconcerting facts. It emerges that considerable differences exist in the kinds of religious persecution which women and men experience, related to social position, and the inequalities that already operate between the sexes.
GENDER-SPECIFIC persecution takes advantage of pre-existing parameters within a society. In this repressive process, the report finds, women and girls are doubly vulnerable, as members of a religious minority and as females.
The religious persecution faced globally by Christian men is described as “focused, severe, and visible”. The biggest weapon used against them is physical violence, followed by economic harassment, incarceration, and forced conscription into military service. The areas where they can be targeted and harmed most effectively all reflect the socio-cultural parts they play within the public sphere as protectors and providers.
The parts played by women in these cultures are very different, however. More identified with the “private” sphere, they are expected to be gatekeepers of family and community honour. Religious persecution meted out to them is characterised as “complex, violent, and hidden”. Predictably, the chief weapon used against them is sexual violence, a weapon, as I discovered in my own research, used indiscriminately against women across the globe, whatever their beliefs. It is prevalent in war in Afghanistan, concentration camps in North Korea, and prisons in China. With the double vulnerability of Christian women, sexual violence can be employed intentionally to violate and dishonour them, bringing harm to their families and damaging faith.
Forced marriage is another weapon frequently quoted in the 50 countries on the World Watch List. Abduction and enforced marriage subject a young woman to patterns of coercion and control, and put her perpetually at risk of domestic violence. They eliminate her right to choose a life partner, and place her, and the children she may bear, beyond the protective reach of members of her faith community.
Covering much of this persecution is a heavy cloak of silence. Its hiddenness is virtually guaranteed when a Christian woman or girl is the only convert in her household. She can effectively be incarcerated behind closed doors, and subjected to pressure or torture from the family to “correct” her choice of religion.
It is hidden elsewhere because it is simply not reported. Victims of sexual violation are reluctant to go to the authorities, or even speak to their own family, about incidents of rape. They are highly unlikely to get legal redress, while going public will expose them and their families to the stigma that often surrounds sexual violence. The result is a paucity of official evidence, along with an ever-present fear.
Girls walking to school, mothers getting water for the family, women working in fields, and even women using toilets outside the home can all be targeted for brutal assaults. The fact that Christian women can be raped with impunity compounds the injustice and suffering of their experience of persecution.
ADDRESSING these atrocities brings shared accountability. The UN bears international responsibility for monitoring; individual governments bear obligations to enact legislation that protects freedom of belief for their citizens; and donor organisations need to target their programmes towards the double vulnerabilities of women.
Until religious and gender equality before the law is acknowledged, embedded, and implemented in the legal framework of all countries, we cannot begin to prevent injustice and brutality from triumphing over good.
And yet those who are being persecuted are members of the global Church, and we, as part of the body of Christ, have responsibilities. Through prayer and support, we break the silence, and address, particularly, the double vulnerability of women. Our call is to propagate a biblical understanding of God’s will to see justice and human dignity, and to reach out with advocacy, in public compassion, to sisters and brothers who suffer for what they believe.
Dr Elaine Storkey is the author of Scars Across Humanity: Understanding and overcoming violence against women (SPCK, 2015, £9.99) (Church Times Bookshop £8.99). Her next book, Women in a Patriarchal World: Twenty-five empowering stories from the Bible will be published by SPCK in April at £9.99 (CT Bookshop £8.99).