APPG Statement: COVID, FoRB and violence against women and girls

On November 25th, the world will mark the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women and Girls and Red Wednesday, a day which aims to draw attention to the plight of those who are persecuted for their religion and beliefs. On this important day, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief urges the UK Government and the international community to act to mitigate the impact that covid-19 has had on vulnerable religious and belief communities globally and, in particular, on women and girls from those communities who are doubly discriminated against because of their gender and their beliefs.

In countries around the world, many marginalised religious and belief communities have faced intensified discrimination since the outbreak of covid-19. For example, according to the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, “antisemitic hate speech has risen alarmingly since the outbreak of the COVID-19 crisis.” Many religious and belief communities have even been blamed for the virus. In India, Muslims faced accusations that they were deliberately spreading the virus and a campaign of Islamophobia in which Muslims were labelled “bio-terrorists” and “corona-jihadists” ensued, leading to many instances of violence and discrimination against Muslims.

This scapegoating has been a truly global problem. According to the Institute for Development Studies, “in a significant amount of the nations which have encountered outbreaks of the novel coronavirus, politicians and opinion leaders have openly condemned religious minority populations under the guise of epidemiological containment, through hateful messages on social media, public speeches and official policies.” This scapegoating has contributed to the many reports of individuals from these communities around the world being attacked, denied aid or otherwise prevented from accessing life-saving humanitarian interventions.

In Iraq, for example, there are reports of Christian communities being the last to get necessary food and medical supplies. Similarly, in Pakistan, there have been reports of NGOs denying food and aid to Hindus and Christians or only serving them after Muslims have been served. Some members of the ethnic and religious minority Hazara group in Pakistan have even claimed that they need to disguise themselves if they hope to receive medical treatment or testing.

In Uganda, there are reports that the Government’s response to covid-19 has systematically excluded religious minority groups by allowing only certain major religions to attend consultative meetings on the coronavirus response. Certain Governments have also utilised the covid-19 outbreak as an excuse to intensify persecution of marginalised religious or belief communities. For example, China has increased its interference and surveillance of Tibetan Buddhists under the pretence of attempting to tackle the coronavirus, even using contact tracing apps to monitor every movement of Tibetan citizens.

Women from marginalised religious or belief communities face all these pressures but also encounter unique persecution and challenges due to their gender. For example, thousands of young Hindu, Shi’a, Sikh and Christian girls in Pakistan are kidnapped and forcibly married to much older men every year. This happens generally with impunity because of the vulnerable economic and social status of these girls. Women from these communities have become much more vulnerable since the outbreak of covid-19 and this increased vulnerability puts them at much greater risk.

As a result, many young girls from minority communities, such as 14 year old Maira Shahbaz and 13 year old Arzoo Raja, have been kidnapped and forcibly married in Pakistan in 2020 and incidents of domestic violence in Pakistan have increased dramatically, as they have done everywhere in the world following the outbreak of covid-19. This huge increase in domestic violence has led to several reports of women from minority communities, such as Yazidis, taking their lives.

On November 26th, APPG FoRB members will lead a debate in the House of Commons which will discuss the impact that covid-19 has had on freedom of religion or belief and what can be done to mitigate this impact. The APPG will use this debate to call on the UK Government and the international community to do everything in its power to ensure that vulnerable religious or belief communities and, in particular, women and girls from those communities, are not forgotten during this global pandemic.