Women's suffering because of their faith is often in daily life. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)
Women’s suffering because of their faith is made worse by the compounding effect of the exploitation of their socio-economic and legal inequalities, new reports show. (Photo: World Watch Monitor)

Five new reports – about Egypt, Ethiopia, Iraq, Colombia and the Central African Republic – unmask the multiple domestic, societal and state dynamics used in the persecution of Christian women and girls in each country.

When viewed individually, the tactics used against women – from subtle discrimination surrounding access to education, through to extreme violence – appear as unrelated “actors”, taking turns to harass a woman’s expressions of faith.

But now each of these reports, by the World Watch Research Unit of Christian charity Open Doors International, catalogues the inter-related web of dynamics and tactics, and concludes by connecting up the “domino” impact of simultaneous persecuting events. The resulting picture is akin to the anguish caused by a thousand paper cuts, plus, all too often, much deeper wounds.

As the same unit’s gender-specific analysis of global persecution trends explained earlier this year: while men often face much more obvious and public forms of pressure and persecution for their faith, women’s suffering is often in daily life.

The timing of these reports coincides with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women yesterday (25 November).

Invisible and lifelong hardship

When it comes to religious freedom women’s lives are all too often characterized by invisible and lifelong hardship. (Photo: Open Doors International)
“When it comes to religious freedom, women’s lives are all too often characterised by invisible and lifelong hardship.” (Photo: Open Doors International)

Each report looks closely at the implications for freedom of religion for Christians in its focus country. In all these contexts, women’s lives are all too often characterised by invisible and lifelong hardship. However, women from minorities (in this case Christians, but not excluding others too) have their difficulties made worse by the compounding effect of the exploitation of their socio-economic and legal inequalities.

A man’s night in jail is always easier to “count” than an assaulted woman whose community is trying hide and protect her from what is misperceived as her shame. Unlike an unjust detention, her experience of persecution hardly shows on the surface; like a bloodless paper cut repeatedly inflicted, her persecution hides in plain sight.

In order to avoid the shame of a daughter choosing to identify with a minority faith, a family patriarch might arrange for her to be forcibly married to a man of the dominant religion. “A happy marriage, a good man,” he says. Without the education or financial means to support herself, she is often trapped in an increasingly abusive marriage without legal recourse. “Everything is provided for her, why should she leave?” When children are added, those antagonistic to her faith within her new familial structure gain new leverage in her dilemma: “For the good of her children, why can’t she do what’s best for them?” These diverse dynamics, when observed as recurring patterns of attack on a minority religious community, are highly effective at undermining the free expression of religion.

In war and armed conflict

Also, the rippling consequences of living in a state in conflict – of the sort that 2018 Nobel Peace Prize winners Denis Mukwege and Nadia Murad have been combatting – are deeply damaging and worthy of the headlines they receive. Recognition of “their efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and armed conflict” is very welcome in the context of religious persecution.

Iraqi Christian Rita Habib was sold four times on the ISIS sex slave market. (Photo: Still from video)
Iraqi Christian Rita Habib was sold four times on the ISIS sex slave market. (Photo: Still from video)

Women have been targeted in war and sectarian conflict throughout history and, as this new research reveals, the use of sexual violence in situations of religious pressure and persecution is no exception.

Open Doors’ research found that, surprisingly often, violence against Christian and other minority women is an extension of harmful cultural practices, or discrimination, viewed as “normal” for women within their particular context.

However, just as the recent Nobel Prize award reminds us that sexual violence cannot be excused amidst the devastation of war, so violence and other forms of persecution should not be ignored in the context of cultural or legal discrimination against women. These many “smaller” vulnerabilities are equally important to address. Failure to cleanse a wound, no matter its size, leaves a place for harmful bacteria to enter.

Increasing resilience

The good news is that – by understanding the nature and extent of the intersection between generalised violence against women and religious persecution – organisations supporting minority faiths are better able to equip communities and individuals to prevent this where possible, and also to support survivors, thus increasing resilience.

Women’s resilience in action is a perfect place to bring support. Women are often at the forefront of community efforts towards peace, such as the Christian and Muslim women of Boda in the Central African Republic. Their women’s groups have given participants economic lifelines, self-respect and a place to overcome their trauma.

In fact, every vulnerability and dynamic identified in these five reports offers a corresponding way in which women’s resilience can be reinforced. In addressing these many opportunities, individual women and girls can be strengthened to increasingly survive and thrive with their families, as they each practise their chosen faith.