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Powerful self-portraits bring stories of persecuted women to UK leaders

07 December 2018

Esther was a teenager when Boko Haram militants attacked her town in Nigeria. She was abducted and forced to marry one of the extremists.

She eventually managed to escape, and Open Doors partners have been providing her with practical support and trauma care. But she is just one of many Christian women in Nigeria who are facing horrific levels of persecution because of their faith and their gender. Who will hear their stories? And who will act on their behalf?

Amazingly, Esther’s story is going from her small town to the people of power within the UK government and the UN – the people who could bring about real change for our sisters in Nigeria.

The wrong gender and the wrong faith

How is Esther’s story going on such an incredible journey?

It was clear that we needed to shine a light on stories like Esther’s when Open Doors’ research highlighted how persecuted Christian women often experience a double persecution; they have the ‘wrong gender’ and also the ‘wrong faith’. This makes them incredibly vulnerable to persecution, especially in conflict areas. It also became clear that often the fundamental impact of being from the ‘wrong faith’ was being neglected in government policy on sexual violence in conflict.

This is a problem, because if it is being ignored in government policy it will not be acted upon in government programmes. Therefore, the issues facing women who experience this double vulnerability will not be adequately addressed.

In response, Open Doors commissioned the artist Hannah Rose Thomas to lead an art project in northern Nigeria in September 2018 to help us tell stories like Esther’s in a new and powerful way.

The artist Hannah Rose Thomas working with women in Nigeria to help them paint their self-portraits.

Esther, along with eight other women, had all experienced sexual violence from Boko Haram or Fulani herdsmen. Both groups see Christians as easy targets and Boko Haram – and some elements within the Fulani Herdsmen – have an Islamist agenda. Christian women are particularly vulnerable therefore to sexual violence and kidnap as a means to punish and threaten the Christian population in northern Nigeria.

Hannah empowered the women to use art as a means to share their stories and process their trauma, leading to nine powerful self-portraits. This art project enabled these women to find their voice, to know their incredible worth and even to learn to write their names for the very first time. Esther said, “We came with heavy hearts and now we are leaving with joy.”

Esther holds up her self-portrait.

Esther’s story in Lambeth Palace

These brave women’s voices speak loud and clear through their self-portraits. They were displayed alongside portraits that Hannah painted of the women at an exhibition hosted by our friends at Lambeth Palace. Portraits of Burmese Rohingya women, commissioned by BRAC UK, and Iraqi Yezidi women, stood alongside these Nigerian Christian women, highlighting the expansive double vulnerability of women of the ‘wrong gender’ and ‘wrong faith’ in each of their contexts.

Hannah's portrait of Esther.

An incredibly influential panel was there. The plight of these women was discussed by Canon Sarah Snyder (the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Adviser for Reconciliation), SRSG Pramila Patten (the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Sexual Violence in Conflict), and Lord Ahmad (Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister of State for the Commonwealth and the United Nations; Prime Minister’s Special Representative on Preventing Sexual Violence in Conflict (PSVI) and Prime Minister’s Special Envoy on Freedom of Religion and Belief).

The artist Hannah Rose Thomas with Lord Ahmad and SRSG Pramila Patten.

Lord Ahmad tweeted after the exhibition saying, “At a poignant exhibition by Hannah R Thomas bringing together two issues close to my heart – preventing sexual violence in conflict & freedom of religion or belief.”

This connected approach led Lord Ahmad to invite the portraits to be exhibited at the PSVI Conference, held in London in November 2019. This high-profile event, hosted by the UK Government, will discuss how to prevent sexual violence in conflict. To have these portraits invited into this conversation shows that the need to address the persecution of faith, as well as the vulnerability of women, is finally being prioritised.

SRSG Patten has also asked for the portraits to be exhibited at the UN in New York in October 2019.

It is a step of victory to see these women’s voices being heard in significant places of influence.

Our hope is that the impact of this art project, this exhibition, and these ongoing events will inform policy on sexual violence in conflict more holistically and therefore more fully recognise and respond to the plight of our Christian sisters facing persecution on the ground.

Speak out for your persecuted church family

You can help to ensure that stories like Esther’s are heard by more of the people in power here in the UK.

On 16 January Open Doors will be in Parliament to launch to the 2019 World Watch List, our annual ranking of the 50 countries where Christians face the most extreme persecution. We’ll be sharing stories of believers like Esther, and helping our leaders to understand what they can do to support international freedom of religion or belief. Please invite your MP and make sure they know that this matters to you – and should matter to them too.

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