Written by: Open Doors SA
Article source: Supplied

New gender report shows shocking increase
The gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP) faced by Christian women and girls is consistently more complex and multifaceted than the persecution faced by men and boys. Violent forms of insecurity tend to see women and girls more vulnerable to sexual violence, whereas men and boys face a heightened risk of physical violence. These are some of the findings of a new gender-specific religious persecution (GSRP) report commissioned by the ministry organisation, Open Doors International, which supports and strengthens persecuted Christians all over the world.

The report, titled “Insecurity: The 2024 Gender Report”, was released on International Women’s Day. With the celebration of International Women’s Day on Friday, 8 March, the spotlight once again falls on the plight of women and girls – especially on the African continent.

According to Open Doors’ new report, female converts to Christianity are facing a growing persecution threat. For women and girls, persecution is complex, hidden and violent – characterised by sexual violence and forced marriages, as well as by insidious, invisible violence behind closed doors. On the other hand, the persecution of men and boys is focussed, visible and severe – and marked by targeted physical violence, including lethal violence, as well as by state and economic pressures.

Commonly, persecution targets men for their perceived strength as leaders and financial providers, and women for their perceived sexual and familial honour. In countries where Christians face acute levels of persecution for their faith – whether driven by violent religious groups, extended family or other drivers of religious persecution – a person’s gender can be one of the factors that chart the course of persecution they face.

Top pressures affecting Christian women and girls
Globally, women and girls are subject to numerous pressures and disadvantages in their everyday lives. For Christian women and girls, these pressures compound, meaning they experience specific gendered forms of religious persecution.

Across the World Watch List (WWL) countries, women and girls commonly experience persecution within the private sphere, often behind closed doors or perpetrated by those already known to them within their existing communities and relationships.

This year, faith-based forced marriage was identified as a risk for Christian women and girls in 84% of the WWL countries – a concerningly common practice. Forced marriage is a form of exploitation and control, and this risk is interwoven with sexual violence. For example, amid violent insecurity in northern Cameroon, young Muslim men may forcefully take women from the markets… and will keep them for weeks, even months, to rape and make them pregnant, which will mean automatic marriage. They will hide the girls in faraway towns, and the girls will have no financial means to travel back to their village.

Sexual violence and forced marriage are employed as a means of intimidation and control, with these strategies targeted at preventing Christian women and girls from pursuing their faith in Christ.

In some areas of Mali, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Kyrgyzstan and Mozambique, bridal kidnapping on faith-based grounds is a risk. Christian women and girls are abducted to be forcibly married to soldiers and other non-Christian men, frequently Muslim men.

Across the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, women and girls who have converted from another faith, such as Islam, risk being coerced into marrying a non-Christian man who carries some religious authority or who is committed to the faith, with the hope that he will influence her to recant. This can also involve young girls being forcibly married to much older men.

Top 5 pressure points for women:

  1. Forced marriage.
  2. Sexual violence.
  3. Physical violence.
  4. Psychological violence.
  5. Abduction.

The GSRP faced by women and girls is consistently more complex and multifaceted than the persecution faced by men and boys. The average number of pressure points per country for women and girls in 2024 was 8,4 in comparison to 6,6 pressure points per country for men and boys.

Top pressures affecting Christian men and boys
Men and boys particularly risk experiencing faith-related physical violence in 39 of the 50 WWL countries, places where Christians face severe hostility on account of their religious affiliation.

In many of the countries studied, church leaders are predominantly male. As such, they are exposed to specific and violent persecution for their role as leaders and spiritual providers for the faith community. In countries like Colombia, pastors have been forced to flee their homes because of risk of attacks and extortion.

Men’s perceived social role of “protector” is strategically undermined by groups who target male heads of households for repeated acts of torture, increasing pressure to recant their faith and impacting their ability to keep their families safe. Even children can be targets of physical abuse, with reports of boys in primary school experiencing beatings just because they are Christians.

In military contexts and for those who have converted from another religious background, the risk of physical abuse and torture can be even higher and the costs even greater for those who choose the Christian faith. In eastern DRC, Christian men and boys are subject to recruitment into militia groups, targeted kidnappings and killings.

Psychological violence remains another leading form of persecution of men and boys. As part of the psychological pressure exerted on Christian men in MENA, they are forced to attend Friday prayers and even go on a forced “hajj”, a pilgrimage to Mecca.

The impact of repeated cycles of violence, both physical and emotional, cannot be underestimated, causing long-lasting psychological distress to Christian men and boys. The ripple effect of this extends to their families, communities and churches.

Top 5 pressure points for men:

  1. Physical violence.
  2. Psychological violence.
  3. Imprisonment by government.
  4. Economic harassment via business/work.
  5. Military/militia conscription/service against conscience.

Other findings of the report
The 2024 report also reveals the following:

  • Insecure contexts and associated violence through economic collapse, natural disasters, political instability and conflict compound existing vulnerabilities, exacerbating certain forms of GSRP. Violence acts as a spark that exposes and exacerbates pre-existing vulnerabilities. Accordingly, in contexts where violence is high, faith-related sexual violence for women and physical violence for men, including lethal violence, are more common. Violent forms of insecurity such as religiously targeted violence, armed conflict and criminal violence can lead to impoverishment, forced displacement and a normalisation of violence.
  • Marginalised Christians, especially women, can be particularly vulnerable in insecure contexts, such as settings of conflict, forced displacement and criminal violence. Those who are already vulnerable become more at risk when violence escalates. Women belonging to religious minorities are often one such group.

Violent insecurity leaves an indelible imprint on societies for decades. Even when violence formally ceases, men and women of marginalised religious communities still face compounding challenges. This can include trauma, forced displacement and continued marginalisation when societies restructure, all of which can be impacted by religion and gender.

Lynette Leibach, executive director of Open Doors Southern Africa, says: “Persecution doesn’t happen by chance – it is intentional, multi-layered and targeted to the perceived value of men, women and children in society in order to break down the religious minority. Especially concerning is the targeting of vulnerable girls and women through forced marriage as a means of keeping them from living out their Christian faith.  It is essential to create awareness of the reality faced by marginalised Christians, especially women. These findings require action.”

Methodology of the report
The GSRP report has been released annually since 2018. The 2024 report used data gathered by Open Doors World Watch Research (WWR) for the 2024 WWL. Regionally based experts collected primary data globally from caregivers, church leaders, focus groups and regional experts. Open Doors’ gender team analysed this data to reveal how Christian men and women in these countries experience various forms of pressure, to highlight overall persecution trends by gender.

For the 2024 GSRP report, the specific religious persecution (SRP) Unit of Open Doors WWR gathered and analysed data using a mixed methods approach, comprised of both qualitative and quantitative elements. During the 2024 reporting period, which is from 1 October 2022 to 30 September 2023, WWR monitored religious persecution dynamics in over 100 countries.

Analysts studied data from the 78 countries where persecution is high, very high or extreme. This report primarily presents an analysis of the top 50 countries on Open Doors’ 2024 WWL, where it is most difficult to be a Christian.

The data the SRP Unit studies comes from Open Doors’ field staff and field contributors, external experts and WWR persecution analysts. As part of the data collection process, regionally based experts collected qualitative data from trauma specialists, church leaders, focus groups and experts.

Additionally, the report offers case study information based on interviews with Christian men and women who have experienced violence for their faith, gathered by Open Doors field staff or partners. SRP analysts consolidated this research with desk research, drawing from publications by the media, United Nations (UN) and governmental institutions, academia and non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

More information
“Insecurity: The 2024 Gender Report” can be downloaded here.

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Date published: 08/02/2024
Feature image: Simin, a Christian woman from Iran who was part of a house church. After she and her husband were arrested and interrogated, she lost her home, job at a hospital and freedom because of her faith. She and her family fled Iran, now facing the insecurity of life as refugees.

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