Every year, I am saddened by the suffering detailed in Open Doors World Watch List—a comprehensive and authoritative report identifying the 50 countries where persecution of Christians is most severe. But this year, I’m particularly grieved by violence suffered by victims who experience what one might call “double persecution” in that they are targeted as a result of both their Christian faith and their gender.
Christian women are arguably among the most vulnerable people in the world right now. This year’s data indicates there has been a dramatic increase in rapes, harassment and forced marriages in countries across the Middle East and Northern Africa in regions where Islamic extremists exercise control.
We have long known that women’s rights are under-represented in societies whose local and national leaders are solely, or primarily, male. Due to cultural restrictions around gender, for example, women whose husbands are killed, disabled, or imprisoned may have difficulty finding gainful employment, owning property or representing their families’ interests in the local community. In fact, in the most regions dominated by Islam women may not even be able to travel, conduct business or attend medical appointments unless a male accompanies them. This creates serious educational, economical and political disadvantages.
But this year, in addition to the existing persecution trends women have long faced, certain data subsets are increasingly troubling. During the reporting period, for instance, Open Doors documented 2,260 women who were raped or otherwise sexually harassed, or forced into marriage to a Muslim under threat of death.
There are countless stories of how women, Christians specifically, are at increasing risk of being raped, assaulted, or coerced into forced marriage.
Open Doors has received reports from the field detailing how Christian minors in northern Nigeria are being forced to marry and convert to Islam. These human rights violations are particularly difficult to prosecute in this region because Sharia law is strictly enforced in Nigeria’s 12 northern states. And although technically these codes are meant to be applied solely to Muslims, the application of these laws has increased the discrimination Christians face in daily life.
Just as troubling are reports coming out of Egypt relaying how Muslim extremists are using conversion as a kidnapping tactic. One former trafficker described the manipulative plot employed to lure Christian girls into danger. Specifically, a radicalized Muslim man will tell a Christian girl he loves her and will even pledge to convert to Christianity for her. Once these women enter into romantic relationship, the man then urges the girl to ‘escape’ with him. But what the women don’t know is they are actually being kidnapped.
In one case, a 16-year-old Coptic Christian girl, Maat, was kidnapped by five Muslim men. They held her hostage and filmed her naked against her will. They then blackmailed the girl into marrying a Muslim extremist by threatening to release the video. Although Maat’s parents reported the incident to the authorities, the men responsible were not arrested.
Sadly this incident is only one of many. The former trafficker told World Watch List researchers that abductors are paid for each girl they bring in, and “the value of the reward increases whenever the girl has a position. For example, when she is the daughter of a priest or comes from a well-known family.”
Open Doors also tracks more publicly known kidnapping reports, such as the kidnapping of Nigerian girls by Boko Haram. For instance, we have followed the story of Esther*—a teenage victim who reports that her experience in captivity continues to bring her hardship and suffering, even after being freed by the extremists.
While held hostage, Esther was tragically raped multiple times and pressured to denounce her faith. But her newfound freedom, which began in November of 2016, has been less celebratory than she dreamed. She sadly discovered her fellow citizens weren’t eager to welcome back “Boko Haram women,” much less the children these extremists fathered with their hostages. Instead, Esther has endured mocking and villagers have resorted to calling her baby “Boko” instead of addressing her by her real name.
There are countless stories of how women, Christians specifically, are at increasing risk of being raped, assaulted, or coerced into forced marriage. Women are sometimes sexually assaulted to bring shame upon them and to effectively isolate them as “tarnished” or “impure.” Tragically, in these regions, rape is wielded as a method to punish those who follow Jesus and to reproduce children who can be raised as radical Muslims, according to Sharia Law.
Martha, a trauma counselor who helps women like these heal from rape and sexual exploitation, reports that, due to cultural or religious biases against these women, most victims not only lose their dignity with rape, but also all of their earthly possessions.
These stories are inarguably tragic. But it’s important, too, to note these incidents and the data—which denotes how six women are raped, sexually harassed or forced into marriage every day—are just the beginning. This figure only indicates the number of victims who had the courage to report their assaults. And, unfortunately, we suspect this data set indicates the problem is far more common and widespread than any of us would like to believe. Because despite the fact these women are part of the largest minority religion in the world, gender-based prejudice makes it difficult for them to seek help or justice after being exploited.
The problem is clear and growing: women are being targeted for assault due to both their Christian beliefs and their gender. They are, in essence, “double persecuted.” And because of that, they deserve double our attention, double our advocacy, double our prayers, and double our support. We are calling upon readers to take to social media to call upon world leaders to intervene for women suffering in the world’s most hostile regions by using the hashtag #doublepersecuted.