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A ‘living death’: How Christian women experience persecution

March 6, 2020 by Global Christian Relief in Africa

One month after Rikiya’s husband died, her village was attacked and burnt down by Boko Haram. When she received the news, she gathered her children and fled with nothing but the clothes on their backs. They stayed in another village for two months before it was safe to return. She had lost it all. “When I came back, it was not easy for me. I was a widow with three children. It was not easy,” she says, pinching her eyes to hold back the tears. “I was so traumatized; my husband is gone, and Boko Haram had captured our village.”

Esther was 17 when the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram attacked her village of Gwoza in Nigeria’s Borno State and abducted her, taking her deep into the Sambisa Forest. In captivity, militants did everything they could to make the Christian girls renounce their faith. Determined to not give in, Esther was raped continually. In captivity, she conceived and had a daughter, Rebecca. When Esther was rescued a year later and returned to her community with Rebecca, she wasn’t prepared for the second phase of persecution she would endure, this time from her own community. “They called my baby ‘Boko,’” Esther says. People, even her own grandparents, were not so eager to welcome back the “Boko Haram women.”

Tragically, the forms of persecution and its devastating effects in these women’s stories are all too common.

A new in-depth report focusing on gendered persecution surfaces some disturbing realities for Christian women and girls in the top 50 countries where women like Aisha, Rikiya and Esther are highly persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus.

Sexual violence across all regions

Most startling in the report’s findings is that sexual violence against women is highly reported across all regions, leading Global Christian Relief to declare it a world-wide calamity. Countries hostile to Christianity in Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, and sub-Saharan Africa all mentioned sexual violence as the top pressure point used against women.

In parts of Asia, Christian women are trafficked as “brides” to China because of the existing socio-economic vulnerabilities of communities; in the Arabian Peninsula, households quietly exploit Christian maids; in sub-Saharan Africa, raiding militias regularly attack women in Christian villages or abduct them for a life of sexual slavery.

“No demographic is spared from religious persecution,” says Global Christian Relief CEO David Curry. “The research shows that women are specifically targeted by efforts to hijack their faith through forced marriage to a spouse of another faith.

“Most frequently, however, Christian women are routinely victimized by sexual assault. These egregious abuses are rooted in the belief that a Christian woman is of inherently lesser value than a man or woman of another faith. It’s all in a concentrated effort to take away a woman’s right to make up her own mind.”

The report says that religious persecution faced by Christian men can be characterized as focused, severe and visible—evidenced by the prevalence of violent physical beatings and attacks on homes and businesses. In contrast, religious persecution targeting women is most characterized as complex, violent and hidden.

“Though every abuse for the sake of one’s faith is problematic, women and girls are facing the most difficult circumstances because they are often forced to suffer silently,” Curry says. “They are hidden in forced marriages or isolated by the lifelong effects of sexual abuse.”

On the surface, a woman’s persecution experience hardly shows, but as Hana, a Christian woman in Southwest Asia, points out, Christian girls and women have hidden, internal wounds that cannot be bandaged.

“Their persecution hides in plain sight,” she says.

Other key findings:

-Violence is prevalent and gender-specific: 82 percent of countries mentioned physical violence as the top pressure point for men, and 84 percent mentioned sexual violence as the top pressure point for women.

-Sexual violence leaves persecuted Christian women and girls alive to suffer lifelong isolation: In the most difficult countries to live as a Christian, women and girls experience persecution—at its peak—as a kind of invisible “living death” (rape, forced marriage, house arrest). In these instances, sexual violence is used both as a form of control and punishment.

-Conscription into militias or military targets Christian men and boys to counteract Christian values in youth: In 66 percent of countries, targeted conscription into militia or highly restrictive military practices places men in duties and experiences that run deeply counter to their Christian beliefs and values. This leaves them guilt-ridden, compromises their relational capacity, and diminishes the church’s ability to lead in peace building. In Latin America, cartels coerce young men into violent service to vengeful leaders; in sub-Saharan Africa, militias conscript young men into jihadist groups.

-The church’s awareness and response could preserve youth for the future: Armed with knowledge of the strategies used against them, Christian leaders will be able to take steps to protect their youth, especially from strategies used to permanently estrange the youth from their communities.

Violence and forced marriage in sub-Saharan Africa

Across sub-Saharan Africa, sexual violence was reported in 81 percent of the region. Christian women in sub-Saharan Africa like Aisha, Rikiya and Esther face physical harm, loss of custody of their children, being cut off from community, and being forced from their homes.

The report reveals that when these forms of persecution are combined, they are very effective at destabilizing communities and claiming the identity of the next generation. Jihadist groups like Boko Haram, Islamic State West African Province (ISWAP) and al-Shabab intentionally use sexual violence as a tactic to destabilize communities.

For example, the sexual assault of women like Aisha and Esther in Nigeria is typically acknowledged as rape by any observers—including non-Christian sources—but not as a tool of religious persecution. A study of both the demographics of victims and their testimonies of the words their attackers’ hurled at them leaves no doubt that at least one primary objective of Boko Haram and the Islamic State is to eradicate the Christian population by every means.

And they see violence against women as a key tool. The region bears the strongest correlation with forced marriage; a full 100 percent of these countries that reported sexual violence also reported forced marriage.

“The persecutors seek to isolate women and teenage girls from the (Christian) community,” Fischer writes. “[These women and young girls] are forced into a marriage with a non-Christian man.”

Forced marriage accomplishes several things: Married to a Muslim, a women will not have a Christian family; and as the wife of a Muslim, she’ll move in with the husband’s family, who will oversee her.

“That means no contact with the Christian community,” Fischer says. “A forced marriage is a very effective way to isolate women.”

It’s so untraceable that no figures are known about how often this kind of situation happens to Christian girls and women.

Hana shares firsthand observations about the far-reaching impact of persecution of Christian women. “Behind every story that he tells and she experiences, a community, a street, a city, a town, a country is affected when Christians are persecuted,” she says. “That’s how deep the impact goes. That’s how deep the marginalization and religious injustice and the breakdown of dignity of both women and men goes.”

On a wider level, a large part of the number of Christians killed and churches attacked occurs in countries in sub-Saharan Africa. The same applies for abductions (we don’t have to look further than the stories of Esther, Leah Sharibu and the estimated 121 still-missing Chibok girls), physical or mental abuse, and attacks on houses and businesses. Islamic extremists regularly attack or abduct women in Christian villages for a life of sexual slavery.

Whether they rape and leave a woman to the fate of the community, or return her after several years, Christian communities in sub-Saharan Africa often believe that she, and any resulting children, are now identified with the enemy. In CAR, social ostracism has historically extended to calling her a “Seleka woman”; in Nigeria, babies born of rape might be called “Boko babies.” Esther’s story gives us an up-close look at this kind of double persecution.

Northeast Nigeria: A class of its own

In northeast Nigeria and in the Nigerian Middle Belt, the gender component of the attacks and suffering of Christian women and girls is almost in a class of its own. Raids by Boko Haram, and its splinter group Islamic State West Africa Province (ISWAP) in northeast Nigeria, along with Fulani militants have terrorized Christian communities, captured their women and sexually abused them, forced some to be sex slaves, killed some and still collected ransom money for them.

The desire to depopulate Christian-dominated territory has brought about an increase in abduction and forced marriages. Married Christian women are victims of this, too. In extreme circumstances, teenage girls are being recruited by force to be used as suicide bombers.

The laws that permit underage marriage in some Nigerian states (as well the existence of cultural and religious norms that discourage girls from attending school) only contribute to this problem. Additionally, the fear that something will happen to a Christian daughter can also prompt Christian parents to get their daughters married early as a kind of “protection.”

Christian students in schools in the northern states are forced to wear Islamic code uniforms. In Kano state, all schoolgirls must wear trousers and hijab. The danger factor involved in girls traveling to—or attending—school also encourages parents to keep them at home. This results in uneducated girls who are generally ignorant of their rights. Furthermore, the abduction of Christian girls has led to parents seeking to send their daughters to schools outside the Shariah states.

When girls are abducted, deep sadness falls upon the family. Men often see it as their fault for not protecting their children adequately. Families are often left in deep trauma and stigmatized in the local community; this can lead to greater challenges where there is a need for medical attention, but resources are lacking. There is also a general practice of treating women as inferior to men, in rural regions especially, which makes it easier for them to be abused.

In addition to the great emotional toll and social cost of such persecution, in some communities where widows, like Rikiya, are the main breadwinners of the family, such persecution of women also affects the economic well-being of the community. Christian men and boys are often specifically targeted for killing.

Elevating the lives and voices of our sisters

Global Christian Relief is committed to elevating the lives and voices of our sisters in Christ because we believe one of the most powerful ways to impact a vulnerable community is to empower its women. We have seen numerous examples where to truly strengthen the church, we must make sure the targeted violence and oppression of Christian women does not have Satan’s intended goal: to destroy God’s people. To that end, we are coming alongside Esther, Aisha and Rikiya, and many others like them—offering help like trauma counseling, housing assistance, income-generating initiatives, letters of encouragement and emergency relief.