For Christian Women, Persecution Looks Like Rape

Around the globe, female followers of the faith suffer sexual violence, forced marriage, forced abortions, travel bans, and trafficking.
For Christian Women, Persecution Looks Like Rape
Image: Uriel Sinai / Getty

For years, Nigerian doctor Rebecca Dali has cared for her country’s poor and widows. But it was her most recent efforts—reintegrating former Boko Haram captives—that won her the United Nations’ 2017 Sérgio Vieira de Mello humanitarian award.

Dali offers psychological support and practical skill training for Christian girls and women who are often suffering from intense trauma brought on by kidnapping and sexual assault. Many of them have children or are pregnant by their rapists. Because of the stigma this carries, she’s had to talk women out of abandoning their children. And because of their Boko Haram ties, these girls and women are often ostracized by their own communities. As a result, Dali advocates on behalf of survivors whose families and husbands refuse to take their daughters and wives back.

Dali’s work serves but a tiny number of the millions of women around the world who suffer from persecution. Of the 245 million Christians attacked for their faith last year, many are women and girls who are specifically and most frequently targeted through forced marriage, rape, and other forms of sexual violence. These are the findings of Gendered Persecution, an Open Doors report that examined the differences in persecution by gender in 33 countries for women and 30 countries for men. (An updated report will be released this March.)

While forced marriage is the “most regularly reported means of putting pressure on Christian women” and “remains largely invisible,” when analyzing the data on female persecution, researchers Helene Fisher and Elizabeth Miller found that

Among all forms of violence… the one most often noted [for women] was rape. The research found it to be a common characteristic of persecution of Christian women in 17 countries, with other forms of sexual assault being listed for exactly half of countries with available data. There are no mentions of this form of violence against men, nor is domestic violence one of the pressures mentioned as a tactic used against Christian men.

Not only must Christian women like the Boko Haram captives deal with their own trauma, they often can’t find sanctuary within their faith communities when they come home.

“Unfortunately, it is all too common that Christian communities do not distinguish themselves from their surrounding cultures and, as a result, will stigmatize their women and girls who have been victims of violence,” Fisher and Miller, the authors of the report, wrote in a statement to CT.

This additional layer of marginalization is so severe that Open Doors is currently working “to train leaders in both trauma care and in theology which brings healing and does not further amplify the damage from sexual violence,” wrote Fisher and Miller. “This counter-cultural response is so crucial to both the resiliency and the witness of the church in the midst of persecution that Open Doors is developing a program to systematically address the issue.”

That means changing the minds of Christian men, says Lynn Cohick, the provost at Denver Seminary.

“If they accept as good and righteous women who were violated, then the shame factor can be lessened. If young men will marry women who escaped forced marriages, they will show that the woman is not tarnished,” said Cohick. “But in so many communities, virginity is a woman’s total self-worth. If it is lost, she is lost.”

And the devastation rarely stops there.

“When girls and women are persecuted, their children are traumatized and the family unit is damaged,” an analyst told World Watch Monitor. “It easily leads to generational trauma.”

Rape is frequently employed as an act of warfare, as Katelyn Beaty wrote for CT in “Why Boko Haram and ISIS Target Women.”

Sometimes a group intends to infect the enemy’s women with disease in order to destabilize a community. One of the countless women raped during the Rwandan genocide recounts her abusers, Hutu men with HIV/AIDS, saying, “We are not killing you. We are giving you something worse. You will die a slow death.” Some women get sold as brides by their families to placate an insurgent group; others as sex slaves to fund a group’s own military campaign. And throughout history, systematic rape has been used to wipe out an enemy’s numbers and increase one’s own.

In “It’s Cheaper to Rape a Woman than Waste a Bullet,” Lynne Hybels reports on how Congo’s fighters strategically deployed sexual assault as a weapon of war.

If they could impregnate the women, so much the better. Every child born of hate would place one more unwanted burden on an already reeling community.

Some of the women we met had watched their husbands be murdered by the same rebels who later raped them. Others were so viciously violated they ended up in the hospital for months with painful wounds that never healed. And all suffered from the stigma and shame unfairly wrapped around victims of sexual violence.

Even as the Western world tries to bring more attention to victims of sexual violence and harassment, the problem shows little sign of abating. In its most recent World Watch List, Open Doors notes that there are an additional 30 million people on this year’s list of 50 countries, compared to its 2018 report.

Further, in the list’s five worst countries to be a Christian—North Korea, Afghanistan, Somalia, Libya, and Pakistan—women are far more likely than men to be the targets of sexual violence. Although sexual violence is one of the primary weapons for persecuting women, governments, institutions, and individuals have other ways of harassing them, notes the Gendered Persecution report:

Far from being gender blind, persecution exploits all the available vulnerabilities that women have, including: lack of access to education, healthcare or infrastructure; forced divorce; travel bans; trafficking; widowhood; incarceration in a psychiatric unit; forced abortions or contraception; being denied access to work or the choice of a Christian spouse.

With women constituting more than half of the church, Christian men must see themselves as having their own role to play in addressing the needs of female survivors in their faith communities, say Fisher and Miller. (According to 2016 Pew Research Center data, about 33.7 percent of the world’s women identify as Christian, compared to the 29.9 percent of men.)

“This is not a women’s issue; this is an issue that affects the whole of the church family and, therefore, the whole of the church family is called to be part of the solution, coming alongside our Christian sisters,” they wrote.

Christian men looking for a role model might look to one of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winners, Denis Mukwege, a doctor who treats rape victims. While the dozens of women and girls treated by Mukwege have been attacked not for their faith but because of war, the gynecologist has been outspoken in his quest to dignify all sexual assault survivors. He wears a button on his lab coat that says, “Stop Raping Our Greatest Resources, Power to the Women and Girls of the Democratic Republic of Congo.”

He challenged his fellow believers in a 2017 speech. “It is up to us, the heirs of Martin Luther, through God’s Word, to exorcise all the macho demons possessing the world so that women who are victims of male barbarity can experience the reign of God in their lives.”

June
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