Adrienne* survived a brutal sexual attack during a conflict with ex-Seleka militants in Central African Republic (CAR), only to be ostracised from her own community. Adrienne was alone in her greatest time of need, and the baby born to her nine months later bears the same vulnerabilities, and a label: a “Seleka baby”.
The World Watch Research unit of Open Doors International, a global charity which supports Christians under pressure for their faith, recently identified sexual violence against women and girls as one of the most common means globally of putting pressure on Christian communities and families.
These conclusions are the first inroads into identification of the extent to which violence in conflict and violence in religious persecution follow similar destructive paths.
Today (19 June), the United Nations calls attention to the situation of those like Adrienne and her baby through the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, in order “to foster solidarity with survivors who endure multiple, intersecting stigmas in the wake of sexual violence, including the stigma of association with an armed or terrorist group, and of bearing children conceived through rape by the enemy”.
‘A continuation of their dark misery’
Divisions, conflict and war bring out the worst in human behaviour. We easily divide ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’ over politics, ethics and socio-economic differences. Once ‘they’ are considered enemies, not our neighbours, the door is opened to give ourselves and others the ethical permission to suspend our moral obligations to our enemies.
Women caught in the crossfires of conflict are attacked both because they are considered purest and dearest to the ‘other’ group and because their family’s honour is seen as resting on them. Yet survivors of violent sexual attack in conflict regularly find the aftermath a continuation of their dark misery. Rejected and discarded, both sides of the conflict now consider these women and their children to belong to ‘them’, not ‘us’.
The recent research into global persecution trends reveals dynamics which parallel those common in the use of sexual violence in conflict. Notably, that there is widespread use of socio-cultural dynamics to amplify the physical damage inflicted on a woman or girl through the stigmatisation of the assault.
Churches and Christian communities are not immune to this spiral of shame and exclusion, yet they are also the first place many abused women turn for refuge and comfort. Thankfully, it was precisely through the informed trauma care and practical training from Christian leaders in her home town, to the north of Bangui, that Adrienne found relief and inclusion. By working together with UN Women initiatives, faith-based groups can be a powerful unifying force for restoring community to ostracised survivors of sexual violence in conflict, and allowing these women and children a safe space to begin to heal.
‘Display of solidarity’
The parallels and overlap of dynamics common to sexual violence in conflict and sexual violence in religious persecution is perhaps most clearly illustrated by the horrors experienced by Yazidi and, to a lesser extent, Christian women in Iraq under ISIS. Their experience calls for the setting aside of sectarian tendencies to address with a unified voice the injustice of acts which prey on the innocent and vulnerable.
With this perspective, Open Doors UK and Ireland recently co-hosted an exhibition of portraits of Yazidi women in the UK Parliament to bring these women out of the shadows of excluded ‘otherness’.
The same display of solidarity will be made by Open Doors Canada on 23 June in a multimedia exhibition which does not shy away from continued embracing of all Christian women through the aptly named #OneWithHer campaign. This simple expression beautifully captures a refusal to stigmatise victims of sexual violence in conflict, no matter the source of the conflict.
The UN is explicitly considering the strategy of “enlisting religious and traditional leaders to help change harmful social norms and dispel the perception that these children and their mothers were complicit in the crimes committed by their captors”. Together, faith-based initiatives can embrace survivors of sexual violence in conflict as a part of ‘our’ community. As a part of ‘us’, the ongoing use of violence against women cannot be ignored.
The 2018 Open Doors World Watch List, which included a specific Gender Profile of Persecution for 30 of its top 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, found that sexual violence is a key factor in the under-the-radar conflict which affects women of a minority religion.
This intersectionality was officially recognised by the US Commission on International Religious Freedom in a July 2017 report and the list of Key Issues in their more recently published Policy Focus mirrors exactly the global trends recognised by World Watch Research.
(Elizabeth Lane Miller is a freelance writer and analyst for the World Watch Research unit of Open Doors International)
*Not her real name