In the five worst of the 2019 World Watch List’s 50 most difficult places to be a Christian (North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan), vulnerabilities which are linked to men and women’s social status create space for harsh religious persecution, report the List’s analysts at Open Doors International. The List reports that, in contexts which restrict women’s legal rights to equal representation, minority Christian communities are especially vulnerable to having their women and girls sexually attacked, forcibly married, subjected to domestic abuse, stripped of their inheritance or even killed – all with impunity.
Sexual violence used as a means of power and control against Christian women
The UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Heiner Bielefeldt, noted in his August 2013 report that “Discrimination based on stereotypical roles of men and women is one of the most widespread human rights violations worldwide. It can assume cruel forms and deprives many women and girls of their rights to life, freedom and respect for human dignity”. He went on “Gender stereotypes and stereotypical pictures of believers often exist in tandem, a problem disproportionately affecting women from religious minorities”.
In November 2018, World Watch List (WWL) analysts on Afghanistan recorded similar evidence: “Women found to be married to new converts from Islam and sharing their husbands’ Christian faith, are punished by being raped. The same with children of converts who are at risk of child abuse.”
Open Doors researchers say the results for the worst five 2019 WWL countries (North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan) all display a characteristic division, where women suffer more than men from the use of sexual violence as a means of power and control over their free exercise of Christian faith.
Analysts on Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan have all noted the role of each country’s social or state understanding and implementation of Sharia (Islamic) Law in creating an imbalance of human rights vulnerabilities which is prejudicial for women and girls. The most consistent of these vulnerabilities is the relative impunity with which women and girls can be attacked, either because their testimony is thought to carry half the weight of a man’s or because the requirements to prosecute sexual crimes are, in practice, unattainable.
In a recent Human Rights Watch report, women in North Korea report that “unwanted sexual contact and violence is so common that it has come to be accepted as part of ordinary life”. WWL researchers also similarly noted the use of sexual violence as a means of persecution to which Christian women and girls are particularly subject in North Korea.
Reports from Pakistan illustrate the compound effects of the discrimination of minority religion and gender inequality on future generations of vulnerable Christian girls: “Due to stories of abduction and seduction of Christian girls, most lower-middle class and working class families are apprehensive [about] sending their girls for higher education and into the job market. This further prevents them from being educated and limits their independence and ability to be economically independent.”
Severe physical violence and socio-economic ostracism facing Christian men strains communities
Although there are the legal and associated social vulnerabilities unique to women of such countries, persecution targeting minority Christian men and boys in the five worst 2019 WWL countries is characterized by severe physical violence and socio-economic ostracism. Analysis of the situations in Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya and Pakistan exposes the use of physical violence, including torture and death, against minority Christian men after their faith is discovered.
Furthermore, “male Christians are more prone to social discrimination since they spend more time [than women] in public life.” This observation was made in the context where Christian men operate outside the home and “must find alternative sources of income in order to not engage in religious practices [such as Islamic prayers several times a day] taking place in the market place.” This socio-economic attack strains the sustainability of minority communities.
In militant contexts or contexts with a stark class difference, persecution of men might also include sexual harassment and abuse. This might include “Being forced to demonstrate physically whether or not they are circumcised with everyone in their [college] class or work place coming to check” or the fact that “Boys are particularly vulnerable in a (militia) culture where young men can be sexually abused by powerful men.”
Repression of ‘the one’ equals the vulnerability of ‘the whole’
The most significant unifying point of the targeting of both men and women – in all 50 of the WWL 2019 most difficult countries – is that the pain and damage of an attack on an individual Christian has a ripple-effect on those around them.
One analyst describes the most basic level: “When girls and women are persecuted, their children are traumatized and the family unit is damaged. It easily leads of generational trauma.” An analyst for Somalia explained regarding men: “When the men are killed, most times the family is left unprotected, labelled ‘kaffirs’, the property is confiscated and the widow is left at the mercy of the dead man’s family [or] forced to marry a Muslim man. Many women are taken advantage of by male relatives, and young daughters married off [to Muslims]. The family many times ends up impoverished. The church also suffers greatly when the men are persecuted or killed because most of the other men opt to go into deeper hiding thereby damaging fellowships [informal meetings of Christians].”
Contexts with restricted human rights that reinforce gender stereotypes are ripe with vulnerabilities which can be exploited to maximum effect against minority believers.