The global targeting of Christian women for rape and sexual violence appears to be at an all-time high, especially in the Muslim world, according to a new study.
Open Doors, a human rights organization that tracks the global persecution of Christians, recently published reports examining the role of gender. One of these, “A Web of Forces: The 2023 Gender Report,” ranks nations based on the category of “gender-specific religious persecution” (or GSRP), and shows how a victim’s male or female gender shapes their respective persecution.
According to the report:
Globally, Christian women and girls often find themselves caught in a particularly complex web of compounding vulnerabilities. They are not only vulnerable as Christians … but their additional gender-determined vulnerabilities overlap and interact to a greater extent than for Christian men and boys in the same contexts. These are environments where all females experience a disadvantaged status as women before the law or in society, bias against their lack of education or an elevated risk of poverty. These multiple vulnerabilities compound one another – like the multiplying forces of compound interest in a bank. Religious persecution exploits the existence of these many interlinking and compounding forces, aggravating the damage to individual women and girls, their families and their communities.
The top five “pressure points” Christian women experience are: 1) sexual violence; 2) forced marriage; 3) physical violence; 4) incarceration or house arrest by male family members; and 5) psychological violence.
Although all five pressure points are often interconnected, the first—“sexual violence” against Christian women for their faith—is by far the most common and widespread. As the report emphasizes,
Faith-based sexual violence is recorded as a risk for Christian women and girls in 86% [of the top 50 nations where Christians are most persecuted in general]. Sexual violence is consistently chosen time and time again to target Christian women and girls across the globe…. The physical and psychol-emotional severity of sexual violence is considerable and well-understood, but the effectiveness of sexual violence is also due to the myriad of damaging consequences that can ensue. A web of complicit forces can worsen its impact and lead to loss of shelter, food, future opportunities and community [bold in original].
Of the top 20 nations where gender most shapes the experience of persecution for female Christians, 18 are either Muslim-majority or have a significant Muslim population (the other two are India and Colombia). The 20 are ranked as follows: 1) Nigeria, 2) Cameroon, 3) Somalia, 4) Sudan, 5) Syria, 6) Ethiopia, 7) Niger, 8) India, 9) Pakistan, 10) Mali, 11) Iran, 12) Mozambique, 13) Eritrea, 14) Burkina Faso, 15) Central African Republic, 16) Afghanistan, 17) Democratic Republic of the Congo, 18) Colombia, 19) Egypt, and 20) Tunisia.
A representative sampling of the aforementioned African, Arab, and Asian nations follows in no particular order:
Nigeria: “[Christian] Women and girls have been raped, forced into sexual slavery, kidnapped for ransom and killed.… Abduction is used regularly to depopulate Christian-dominated territory and impoverish Christian families. Most commonly, Christian girls are abducted and have been known to be trafficked by radical Islamic religious leaders for the purpose of forced marriage and forced conversion – even women who are already married…. Of late, Emirs have provided a special covering for abductors of minors, they collect the minors from the abductors and convert them to Islam then marry them off to willing Muslims, who often rape the minors to impregnate them. The emirs act like their parents, while their biological parents are denied access to them. When parents try to rescue their child, they commonly face resistance from the community, police and judiciary, who argue the marriage is legitimate under Islamic law and the girl has accepted Islam. In addition to being “married,” girls abducted by militants have reportedly been used as suicide bombers, human shields or as leverage in negotiations with the government or their families…. Violence against women is also used as a weapon to harm Christian men. Men and boys have been forced to watch their wives, mothers, daughters and sisters be raped in front of them, or abducted, causing deep trauma and feelings of helplessness, as they feel they should have been able to protect them.”
Syria: “Christian women and girls regularly experience harassment and acts of discrimination in the public sphere, even being seduced deliberately in an attempt to convert them to Islam. For example, if a Muslim shop owner sees a woman in a hijab and another who is wearing a cross, she might well keep the Christian waiting and potentially even raise the price for her. Women have also reported being spat at in the street and discriminated against in the workplace. Christian women are most vulnerable to persecution in areas controlled by Islamist groups. For female converts (particularly those from a Muslim background), violence can come from their own families and communities.”
Somalia: “Young female converts to Christianity remain one of the most vulnerable populations. Commonly, a woman suspected of Christianity will be humiliated in public, kept under strict house arrest, raped, abducted, forcibly married to a radical sheikh or killed. For example, when a female convert to Christianity was this year discovered by her family, [she was] arrested in her room and tied on her bed with a chain for six months until another believer was able to come to the rescue. If already married, she will likely be divorced and have her children taken away to ensure that they are raised in an Islamic way.”
Pakistan: “Christian women and girls are at risk of sexual violence in the public sphere, including in the workplace and in schools. Many of them are maids, or cleaners, and are targeted for sexual exploitation. …. [I]t is becoming the norm to rape Christian children [some as young as three]…. The psychological trauma and abuse continues even if a case is brought to bring back the girl…. [One Christian woman] committed suicide because of abuse and sexual harassment, departmental negligence and religious oppression…. Many families never see their girls again, partly because the authorities rarely take meaningful action to bring perpetrators to justice…. The legal system repeatedly fails these young women. Many between the ages of 8-18 are being abducted, raped and married to older men. Some of them over 50 years old…. There are also reports of Christian boys being subject to sexual abuse. Experts indicate that instances of rape and murder of young boys are on the rise in Pakistan…”
Yemen: “[A female convert to Christianity] might be isolated in the home, physically and mentally abused, and possibly given in marriage to a devout Muslim, raped or even killed to ‘restore the honor’ of the tribe or family…. Christian women and girls also risk being sexually abused at the hands of militias due to the concept of ‘anfal’ [Arabic for “spoils”], which permits non-Muslims in some circumstances to be treated as slaves as part of the spoils of war (Quran, Surah Al-Anfal). According to local experts these groups are running prostitution rings in the country.” [For more on the topic of slavery and concubinage in Islam see here, here, and here.]
Chad: “Christian women in Chad face both violent and non-violent persecution for their faith. Christian women are also vulnerable to sexual violence at the hands of Islamic militants. … Women and girls who have been raped and consequently impregnated typically suffer ongoing psychological distress and low self-esteem. Traumatized rape victims sometimes view their children as a perpetual reminder of the crime committed against them. Local sources report that the wider society around them, too, is unsympathetic to their plight, viewing them as tarnished.
Egypt: “Christian women are targeted for marriage by grooming, rape and forced conversion by Islamist networks… Police response has been often complicit or apathetic and many women remain missing. The psychological toll is high, and many women live in fear…”
Democratic Republic of Congo: “Christian women are vulnerable to abduction, rape, trafficking, and sexual slavery, especially by ADF [Allied Democratic Forces, an Islamic terror group]… Women and girls are raped, forced to marry ADF soldiers and others are trafficked. Sometimes these women and girls are killed. Many Christian women who are spared are reportedly kept as a kind of ‘trophy.’ … These forced marriages are often early marriages, as sources report that elderly Muslim men often prefer young Christian girls.
Saudi Arabia: “[R]ape and sexual assault are commonplace across Saudi Arabia for the thousands of non-Saudi (especially Asian and African) housemaids across the country who are Christian (or non-Islamic), a position in which they are commonly abused and virtually treated as slaves.”
Tunisia: “As conversion from Islam is forbidden, converts from Islam face the greatest breadth of persecution if their faith is discovered. … They may be physically beaten, expelled from their home, put under house arrest, threatened with death and/or raped. If already married, she will likely be divorced, have her children taken away and have her financial support withdrawn. Some Christian women have been separated from their children for prolonged periods due to disputes related to their new Christian faith.”
United Arab Emirates: “A female convert to Christianity will face immense pressure from her family to force her to convert back to Islam. If she does not, an imam may be called in to convince her of her sin, or she could be placed under house arrest. Even if a Christian man were willing to marry her, women who come from a Muslim background are legally restricted from marrying a non-Muslim… [F]or Christian women who are married to a Muslim man, the law grants custody of children of non-Muslim women to the Muslim father in the event of a divorce…. House-maids working in the UAE often face sexual harassment or slave-like treatment.”
Among other sad conclusions, these disturbing trends make one thing clear: the notorious sexual abuses that the Islamic State (“ISIS”) committed against Christians, Yazidis, and other non-Muslim minorities—which the world heard of, but was also reassured had “nothing to do with Islam”—are, in fact, part and parcel of Muslim societies, whether they be African, Arab, or Asian, and whether they be rich or poor.