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Interaction of gender and religious persecution

Many religious minorities have long been subject to discrimination and campaigns of persecution. Vulnerability to persecution and discrimination based on belief and religion can also be influenced by factors including a person’s economic status, gender, age, and ethnicity.

The coronavirus pandemic has also exacerbated existing inequalities and made the challenge of addressing the needs of some communities harder.

In 2020, the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief published a report on gender-based violence and discrimination in the name of religion or belief. The report argued that:

  • In all regions of the world, governments had failed to protect people from gender-based violence and discrimination by individuals and groups claiming a religious justification for such actions
  • Instances of gender-based discrimination in the name of religion or belief included female genital mutilation, marital rape, forced marriage, polygamy, and to deny reproductive and sexual rights
  • Consultations with representatives from the south and south-east Asia regions had found women and girls from religious minorities to be at particular risk of violence, including forced marriage and conversion. The report acknowledged that governments themselves had often sought to combat gender-based violence and discrimination.

The rapporteur cited steps taken to combat these, such as school instruction on gender-based violence, engagement with religious and belief leaders, and grassroots campaigns to promote greater tolerance and understanding.

Situation reports

The degree of religious persecution based on gender is unknown. In 2019, the Bishop of Truro’s independent report on Foreign & Commonwealth Office support for persecuted Christians overseas (PDF) concluded that in relation to countries where Christians are a minority:

In global terms, Christian women are more likely to be a victims of discrimination and persecution (including people trafficking, gender-based violence, kidnapping and forced marriage) than men […] Anecdotal evidence has begun to emerge from persecuted Christians that women were suffering violent attacks, targeted abuses and restrictions in the face of ‘double marginalisation’.

Several reports have been published on the intersectionality between gender and freedom of religion or belief.

APPG report on the situation in Pakistan, 2021

In November 2021, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for International Freedom of Religion or Belief published a report suggesting that, based on available evidence, up to 1,000 religious minority women and girls in Pakistan are forcibly married and converted each year.

They are predominantly from Hindu and Christian communities. The APPG states the lower social and economic status of these women and girls makes them particularly vulnerable.

In response to the report, the Foreign Office Minister, Lord Ahmad, expressed the UK Government’s disappointment that draft legislation criminalising forced conversions stalled in Pakistan’s Parliament in 2021. The UK Government says it has regularly raised the issue of freedom of religion and belief with Pakistan.

APPG report on freedom of religion and belief, 2021

In February 2021, the APPG published a report on the state of freedom of religion and belief worldwide (PDF).

Citing examples from India, Nepal, Malaysia, Iraq, Colombia, and Pakistan, the APPG expressed concern that women from minority religion and belief communities had become much more vulnerable, due to the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

In the case of Iraq, following the rise of Islamic State (IS)/Daesh in 2014, Yazidi women and girls were sold as slaves, and subject to sexual violence. The Yazidis are a religious minority, primarily residing in northern Iraq. In 2021, 2,800 women and children were estimated to still be in IS captivity.

In Nigeria, Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram abducted at least 270 girls from one school in 2014. Many were targeted because they were Christians or because they were attending school. Several were reportedly threatened with death if they refused to convert to Islam. Many remain missing, and abductions from schools have continued, despite a strengthening of the Nigerian police force.

Aid to the Church in need report, 2021

The Aid to the Church in Need, an organisation seeking to support Christians being persecuted, published a report on the kidnapping, forced conversion and sexual victimisation of Christian women and girls (PDF) in parts of Africa, the Middle East and Asia in 2021.

In February 2022, the UK Government said it would study the report’s contents and said its human rights work took account of the interaction between gender and religion or belief.

UK Government policy

In November 2020, the Government launched the Declaration of Humanity, which condemns conflict-related sexual violence and committed its signatories to work to dismantle harmful interpretations of faith and belief that may be used to condone or commit acts of sexual violence.

To January 2021, 50 faith and belief leaders, civil society organisations and governments had signed from across the world.

UK aid has funded several programmes promoting human rights, including:

Forthcoming conference

In July 2022, the UK will host the International Ministerial Conference on Freedom of Religion or Belief. In March 2022, the Government said discussions on possible themes and outcomes are still ongoing.

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