This is published today as part of the APPG Commentary om International Freedom of Religion or Belief 2020. The APPG wishes to acknowledge with thanks the contributions and advice of the director and staff of Gender and Religious Freedom, an international NGO working at the intersection of gender equality and freedom of religion or belief.
Stakeholders of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for International Freedom of Religion or Belief have reported concerns at the intersection between freedom of religion or belief and gender in several countries. This section offers a precis of some of the key issues of concern and several salient examples.
The COVID-19 global pandemic has had catastrophic consequences for vulnerable populations around the globe. At the intersection of gender and FoRB is a compounding of vulnerabilities which in ‘normal’ times is systematically exploited by antagonists of FoRB. This produces a global pattern of abuse including ‘forced marriage’ and ‘sexual assault’ as the two most common tactics used against Christian women in 50 countries. COVID-19 restrictions have further exacerbated these complex vulnerabilities whilst simultaneously increasing impunity for aggressors. Governments, civil society actors and fragile national infrastructures struggle to deliver a COVID-19 response resulting in greater impunity for perpetrators of gender-specific religious persecution.
Gender-based violence targeting minorities merely blends in with the increased domestic violence or honour killings. Many of these abuses and violations are hidden and under-reported or, at worst, known and yet dismissed in pandemic times. A senior leader in India has stated they have lost significant ground in protecting religious minority women against gender-based violence (GBV) as there has been a significant increase in targeted trafficking of vulnerable communities facing economic hardship and lack of food security due to lockdowns.
A report published last year by The Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) stated, “The evidence gathered suggests that across contexts and religions, there is a pattern of girls and women being targeted for sexual grooming, not only out of sexual predation, but a wider political project to hurt the religious minority and create a religiously homogenous society.”
In India, Dalit women experience double marginalisation due to their gender and caste. In October 2020, the BBC reported on a Dalit woman who was gang-raped in Uttar Pradesh. The situation in India is a microcosm representative of other regions. FoRB violations here have been exacerbated during COVID-19. Furthermore, evidence suggests that government restrictions and violence are gender specific.
In Nepal, some women and girls convert to Christianity. However, it is dangerous for them to reveal their faith, so they quietly or secretly take part in church services. When known, they are discriminated against by their peers, socially ostracized and severely beaten by family members. Immediate family of ‘convert’ Christians may lock them up. After isolation, they are often deprived of basic survival needs, educational support, parental possessions and basic legal rights. Physical violence comes gradually after emotional and mental torture.
In some rural areas, Christians are socially boycotted and are not allowed to use community resources. In one instance, the Buddhists living in a post-earthquake IDP camp did not allow Christians to share water from the same supply system, and two separate supplies had to be installed. As it is women who use community resources more often than men, this denial of resources affects them more.
In Malaysia, legal rights of women and girls are undermined by provisions that make exceptions for sharia. Civil society organizations stated in a Feb 2018 CEDAW report “Muslim women now enjoy far less rights in marriage, divorce, guardianship of their children and inheritance than their non-Muslim counterparts.” It also stated: “Other areas of gross discrimination against women under the Islamic Family Laws include divorce, polygamy and child marriage.”
These laws open avenues of vulnerability for female converts from Islam to Christianity, the most prevalent being the threat of rape and/or forced marriage to a Muslim. The minimum legal age for marriage in the Islamic family laws (16 for female) can be lowered with the consent of a sharia judge. This law increases the vulnerability of girls who convert to Christianity. The federal government tried to act against child marriages but encountered the bitter resistance of conservative Muslim federal states. In some cases, young Christian women are abducted, never to be heard of again. This is an effective tactic because once they are ‘registered’ as Muslims there is no mechanism for reversing this, even in the event of divorce. Additionally, all children born because of the so-called “marriage” are also legally considered Muslim. A small number of converts are thought to have fled or gone into hiding to avoid this kind of religiously motivated family retribution.
In Iraq, some 2,800 Yazidi women are still missing and both Yazidis and Christians are subject to regular violence and often blamed for the spread of COVID-19.
Concerns were raised by minority faith groups in August 2019 that proposals to include four Islamic clerics among the Federal Supreme Court’s 13 members could mean that sharia would always take precedence. Opponents claimed it would end attempts to overturn legislation such as that which prevents Christian men from marrying Muslim women without converting to Islam.
Iraqi women are guaranteed equal rights in the Iraqi Provisional Constitution, ensuring their right to vote, run for political office, own property, and for girls to attend school. However, there are still existing provisions that discriminate against women in the Iraqi Constitution, the Personal Status Law, and the Penal Code. There has not been significant progress in this since the launch of the Iraqi National Action Plan (INAP) for Women, Peace and Security (WPS) to implement the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 (1325) on Women, Peace and Security in 2014. While this was a promise of enabling women’s participation and protection in the processes of conflict resolution and peacebuilding in Iraq there has been little progress in a country experiencing continued economic instability, popular protests, and security problems. While the constitution requires 25 per cent of MPs to be women, they remain side-lined from making a positive contribution to peace and security initiatives and reconciliation efforts.
The reality for Iraqi women is that the impact of war and sectarian conflict has left many as widows, who can quickly fall victim to poverty.
The impact of freedom of religion and belief violations has further disempowered women from religious minorities.
The Daesh conflict, early marriage, exclusion from school, domestic violence, and lack of knowledge of their social and legal rights means that their interests are unrepresented, particularly in the Nineveh Plains area of northern Iraq, which lacks a security framework and federal government commitment to lasting change. Representation continues to be made for a concerted effort to empower Iraqi religious and ethnic minorities, particularly women, through local civic representatives. For Iraqi women from religious minorities, it is also virtually impossible for them to secure jobs in the public sector or even in the private sector outside their own communities as they do not have full citizenship rights. The combination of a lack of legal rights, opportunities for employment, violence from within their own communities and the threat of violence from militia groups, and now the COVID-19 pandemic, means that some minorities may leave Iraq permanently, pushing Iraq into further economic destabilisation and its religious minorities into extinction. Women are particularly vulnerable within these destabilising circumstances.
A report by Open Doors USA makes the point that there are gendered differences in how men and women in religious minority communities face pressures at the intersection of gender and religious identity. It observes that men in religious minorities face greater risk of physical violence, economic harassment and incarceration, women face greater risk of sexual violence, forced marriage and forced divorce.
In Pakistan, the Hazara Shia community had to face the consequences of the provincial government’s mishandling of the COVID-19 crisis, as the community was blamed for the spread of the virus. Hazara women in particular bore the brunt. Most of the Hazara women who were forced to quarantine had to spend 44 days in the quarantine camp in Quetta, Balochistan. The quarantine camps had sub-standard facilities such as a lack of washrooms and water. Hazara women even had to face difficulties due to the racial profiling of the community in the post-quarantine scenario. According to one report, some local doctors in Quetta refused to treat Hazara women fearing that they will spread the virus. Similarly, women from Hindu Christian faiths in Pakistan continued to face persecution such as forced conversions and forced marriages during 2020 (details in the Pakistan country section).