Today, March 8, is International Women’s Day. For millions of women around the world, this day that began in 1909 is a celebration of strength and empowerment. But it’s also a day to remember millions of women in places where femininity is exploited and abused. And if you’re a woman following Jesus in one of 73 countries where Christians are persecuted for their faith, you face a double vulnerability. Life is doubly harder.
Coming alongside persecuted Christians around the world, Open Doors recognizes the importance of women—as providers, disciplers, healers, nurturers. And they’re sharing difficult but important stories and research to make us aware of the complex and hidden realities that Christian women in these countries face.They also remind us today that as the body of Christ, we are part of one Church, one family. And we are called to strengthen, empower and equip our sisters like Aisha, Maizah, Rita, and Esther:
Two years ago Aisha, a 28-year-old wife and mother of three from Nigeria, found herself face to face with Islamic militants. During an attack on her northern Nigerian community of Kano, they forced their way into her home. A Bible in the room was a sure sign, they thought, that Aisha’s husband was a pastor. Immediately, they grabbed him and took him away. Then the men demanded sex from Aisha. When she refused, they beat her up. That night, Aisha was raped by two men.
When Maizah* invited Christ into her heart, she invited persecution into her life. As a Muslim and as a young woman, leaving Islam and converting to Christianity was basically a death wish. In Libya, she was beaten by a group of bearded men, who wanted her to become the fourth wife of one of the Muslim men who had just attacked her. The attack and ultimatum — combined with the very real potential her own family could kill her if they knew about her conversion — gave her little choice. She fled her home. In her 20s, Maizah is still suffering from the traumatic experiences even after she finally found refuge in a Western country.
Rita, a Christian woman from the Iraqi town of Qaraqosh, was 26 when Islamic State militants invaded her town and took her captive. She was sold and bought four times as a sex slave before she was freed in 2017 and reunited with her father last April — almost four years since she was taken captive, four years after beatings, rape, mockery, intimidation, isolation … the list goes on. Islamic State militants, she says, see women as goods they can buy and sell and torture for disobedience.
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 examples of persecution and its devastating effects in these women’s stories are not uncommon.
New research from Open Doors (a global organization working to strengthen persecuted believers around the world) surfaces some disturbing realities for Christian women and girls in countries where Christians are highly persecuted for their decision to follow Jesus. Around the world, Christians are targeted based not only on their faith but also their gender. Like Aisha, Maizah, Rita, and Esther, increasing numbers of women face double vulnerability —because they are Christians and because they are female.
Persecution exploits all of a woman’s vulnerabilities, including (but not limited to): lack of education, health care, forced divorce, travel bans, trafficking, widowhood, incarceration in a psychiatric unit, forced abortions or contraception, being denied access to work, and lack of choice to marry a person of similar faith. For someone who belongs to two minority groups, the compounded vulnerabilities can make life doubly difficult, even deadly.
The research also found that Christian men and women experience persecution in very different ways. Notably, women face more physical violence than men in terms of the quantity and variety of forms that violence can take. In fact, no overlap exists between the three most prevalent ways Christian men and women face pressure to abandon their faith.
For example, Christian men are most often subject to pressures related to work, military/militia conscription, and non-sexual physical violence, while Christian women are specifically and most frequently targeted through forced marriage, rape, and other forms of sexual violence.
In addition to violent physical acts, persecution against Christian women also includes silent, often hidden and complex attacks such as shame, isolation, discrimination, and grief.
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 are suffering silently from hidden wounds that cannot be bandaged. Their persecution hides in plain sight.
During a recent Open Doors webinar, Hana shared 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.”
The lower the status of women in a society, the worse the violence will be against women in persecuted groups. Open Doors CEO David Curry explains how in many countries, living as second-class citizens exacerbates persecution: “To further complicate and degrade their value, Christian women specifically face an even greater challenge. They are targeted specifically for their faith and often are helpless to demand justice.
“As the United States continues to focus on improving the lives of American women, let’s not forget those who cannot even have a man arrested for violence against them. Let’s not forget these women who have no voice and suffer silently.”
Today, as you watch the celebrations of women, remember to pray fervently with our persecuted sisters around the world — women like Aisha, Maizah, Rita, and Esther.
And look for opportunities to make a difference. Open Doors has a unique opportunity to write to Aisha. She’s in trauma counseling now and needs your letters of encouragement. Just go to the Open Doors site and write your message. The letters will be translated and given to this wife and mother of three in the next few months.
We can’t think of a better way to celebrate International Women’s Day!