International Day of the Girl Child:
Predatory Religious Persecution and Targeted Seduction
By Helene Fisher and Elizabeth Lane Miller, Specific Religious Persecution specialists for Open Doors International
Tuesday, October 11th marks the 10th anniversary of the International Day of the Girl Child. Globally, girls face unprecedented challenges due to their age and gender. We take a look at how religious belief also compounds their vulnerability and how the Church can become a sanctuary for Christian children and youth who have been victims of religious persecution.
From the mud-bricked walls of Central Africa to the cinder block cities of South-East Asia, Christian boys and girls are growing up with serious challenges like poverty and conflict. They are also facing all kinds of religious persecution. Whether the walls of their church are roughened or clean and bright, it is deeply troubling that the children of God’s persecuted church are not spared the most sinister and offensive tactics to keep them from growing up in the Christian faith.
We all know that children and youth are a unique demographic because they are in a formative time of life, during which any experience can shape and alter the pathways of their future. What we may be less aware of is how this most fragile time of life is manipulated by religious persecutors. This became painfully apparent to us as we studied religious persecution dynamics for the youngest generation of the church. And “the girl child,” as she is often called, is perhaps one of the most vulnerable and hardest hit of all.
While both boys and girls experience harsh tactics, the girl child is especially vulnerable to targeted seduction. In religious persecution, targeted seduction uses romantic attentions, promises of relationship or sexual attraction with the intentional purpose of leading someone away from their chosen faith. This relational pursuit taps into the human need for love and belonging. And it harnesses the church’s emphasis on marriage and family, especially for adolescent girls maturing into adulthood.
Many young women in the countries we have studied have grown up hearing that her greatest joys in life will be found as a wife and mother – and certainly her greatest gift to protect until she is married is her virginity. While we may mean well as a church in emphasizing family status, what we don’t realize is the extent to which a younger girl develops FOMO (fear of missing out) and internalizes this celebration as the only way to find status in her community. This makes her vulnerable to a savvy persecutor.
She feels pressure to get married, and then a non-Christian starts to make her feel special and valued. Once her young heart begins to lean towards her non-Christian admirer, then she is susceptible to additional pressures. He might, in the sweetest of words, ask if they shouldn’t be of one heart and mind when it comes to religion as well. Or, he may downplay their different religions, seeming to be very tolerant of her differing beliefs while they are courting. When her guard is down, sexual assault and social pressure often force her family to consider marriage, in order to preserve an unbiblical notion of ‘honor’. Some girls are married without their family being present.
It is after the marriage happens – and here we shouldn’t imagine a bright and joyous family celebration but a hurried and perhaps even hidden event – that the truth of the relationship is discovered. It was all a trick; it was targeted seduction. Sexual violence, sometimes house arrest, ensues, and ultimately forced conversion. After a year of marriage, and perhaps a pregnancy, he often divorces her and claims custody of the child.
Whether she remains with the ‘husband’ as a lifetime sex slave and housekeeper because she doesn’t dare to be a divorced woman or is returned to her family in ‘disgrace’, the result is the same: another young Christian woman has effectively been removed from the church’s future. She is unlikely to be entrusted with any form of ministry or training to grow in her spiritual gifting. She is unlikely to be remarried to a Christian man because she is viewed as spoiled goods. Worst of all, her mother and grandmother’s dreams for her have been used as a weapon of religious persecution.
Fundamentally, this single tactic used against children (among 30 tactics identified in the study) isn’t about girls or boys, but about how religious persecution of children and youth can be a catalyst for inter-generational harm within the church. If the ultimate goal for persecutors is to completely eradicate Christianity in communities, then it is strategic to sever ties between older and younger generations. If they can turn one generation against another, then the family will continue the work of the persecutors.
On the other hand, there is an even more devious potential for generational strife. It is the subtle turning on its head the entire notion of Freedom of Religion or Belief on its head. If and when, in the case of targeted seduction, the Christian family protests that their daughter has left her Christian roots, this family can be accused of being the ones violating their child’s freedom of religion.
The church can stand strong in the face of these tactics
As followers of Jesus, we have an alternative. The gospel of Jesus is a powerful antidote, able to cover and redeem those terrible moment of their lives.
A safe, supportive church plays a powerful role in intergenerational relationships. In hostile environments, a church can recognize the inherent worth of children and youth, be a place of encouragement, and foster intergenerational understanding. Leaders and parents have a responsibility to strengthen their young people’s sense of belonging and attachment.
However, some leaders may not feel well equipped to understand fully the experiences that young people in their congregations are facing in order to meet their needs. Young adults, in particular 18–30-year-olds, can often serve as a bridge of understanding between generations. They can help break the false peace of silently ignoring the pressures facing the youth and suggest ways of equipping teenagers to face the silent pressures they face, such as targeted seduction. One practical way to protect against targeted seduction is for youth is to see church as a place where the unique strengths of the younger generation are valued and given space to flourish.
No matter where we are in the world, leaders and parents need to enter the reality of what our younger generations are facing. Without entering their reality – we might miss the actual tactics playing out in our homes and places of worship. Whichever walls are surrounding us, a visible unity between generations makes for a powerful gospel witness of true love and belonging.
Find out more by reading: A Generation at Risk.
 A Generation at Risk: Children & Youth report 2022, Open Doors World Watch Research
 According to Articles 14 and 30 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), children have the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; they can neither be forced to adopt a religion or belief, nor be forced to stop following one. (A Generation at Risk, p 5)