Enabling victims of sexual violence in conflict to stay ‘part of us’

Adrienne* survived a brutal sexual attack during a conflict with ex-Seleka militants in Central African Republic (CAR), only to be ostracised from her own community. Adrienne was alone in her greatest time of need, and the baby born to her nine months later bears the same vulnerabilities, and a label: a “Seleka baby”.

On June 19, 2018, the United Nations calls attention to the situation of those like Adrienne and her baby through the International Day for the Elimination of Sexual Violence in Conflict, in order “to foster solidarity with survivors who endure multiple, intersecting stigmas in the wake of sexual violence, including the stigma of association with an armed or terrorist group, and of bearing children conceived through rape by the enemy”.

The  , which included a specific Gender Profile of Persecution for 30 of its top 50 countries where it is most difficult to live as a Christian, recently identified rape, sexual violence, forced marriage, house arrest and abduction of women and girls as the most common means globally of putting pressure on Christian communities and families.

These conclusions are the first inroads into identification of the extent to which violence in conflict and violence in religious persecution follow similar destructive paths.

Churches and Christian communities are not immune to this spiral of shame and exclusion, yet they are also the first place many abused women turn for refuge and comfort. Thankfully, it was precisely through the informed trauma care and practical training from Christian leaders in her home town, to the north of Bangui, that Adrienne found relief and inclusion.

‘A continuation of their dark misery’

Divisions, conflict and war bring out the worst in human behaviour. We easily divide ourselves into ‘us’ and ‘them’ over politics, ethics and socio-economic differences. Once ‘they’ are considered enemies, not our neighbours, the door is opened to give ourselves and others the ethical permission to suspend our moral obligations to our enemies.

Women caught in the crossfires of conflict are attacked both because they are considered purest and dearest to the ‘other’ group and because their family’s honour is seen as resting on them. Yet survivors of violent sexual attack in conflict regularly find the aftermath a continuation of their dark misery. Rejected and discarded, both sides of the conflict now consider these women and their children to belong to ‘them’, not ‘us’.

This imprisoning isolation and exclusion from two communities is also experienced by female Christian converts who are forced to marry men of a different religion and held under family-monitored house arrest. Tala*, a Persian-speaking young woman, told Open Doors about how her father forced her middle sister to marry a very strict man who disapproved of her Christian faith. “My sister tried to refuse to marry him. Now she is living with him and he is controlling her every movement. She can’t attend house church anymore; in fact, she is barely allowed to have contact with her brothers and sisters in faith.”

 ‘Display of solidarity’

When Jesus taught a certain expert in the law about loving our neighbours (Luke 10), he refused to establish a boundary line between Jews and Samaritans. The expert in the law wanted to limit his duty to love to a pre-defined, comfortable group of ‘us’. Jesus’ answer defined for ‘us’ that ‘they’, too, are our neighbour.

The overlap of dynamics common to sexual violence in conflict and sexual violence in religious persecution are perhaps most clearly illustrated by the horrors experienced by Yazidi women in Iraq under ISIS. In a move meant to address injustice with a unified voice, Open Doors UK and Ireland recently co-hosted an exhibition of portraits of Yazidi women in the UK Parliament to bring these women out of the shadows of excluded ‘otherness’.

The same display of solidarity will be made by Open Doors Canada on 23 June in Toronto through a multimedia exhibition which does not shy away from continued embracing of all Christian women through the aptly named #OneWithHer campaign. This simple expression beautifully captures a refusal to stigmatise victims of sexual violence in conflict, no matter the source of the conflict, or to forget that she is a part of ‘us’.

This year, the UN is explicitly considering the strategy of “enlisting religious and traditional leaders to help change harmful social norms and dispel the perception that these children and their mothers were complicit in the crimes committed by their captors”. By working together with UN Women initiatives, faith-based groups can be a powerful unifying force for restoring community to ostracised survivors of sexual violence in conflict.

*Name changed for security reasons |  Representative image used.