In a statement issued in Geneva on January 16 2023, United Nations human rights experts have expressed serious concerns at the reported upsurge in abductions, forced conversions and marriages of underage girls and young women from religious minorities in Pakistan. They emphasised on urgent action to curb this practice and ensure justice for victims.
The experts include Tomoya Obokata, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery; Mama Fatima Singhateh, special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children; Reem Alsalem, special rapporteur on violence against women and girls; Nazila Ghanea, special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Fernand de Varennes, special rapporteur on minority issues; Siobhan Mullally, special rapporteur on trafficking in persons; Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Chair), Ivana Radacic (Vice-Chair) and Ms Elizabeth Broderick, Meskerem Geset Techane and Melissa Upreti, Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.
“We are deeply troubled to hear that girls as young as 13 are being kidnapped from their families, trafficked to locations far from their homes, made to marry men sometimes twice their age, and coerced to convert to Islam, all in violation of international human rights law,” said the experts.
In the first week of March, 2022, Persicla Dilawar, a 15-year-old Christian girl was kidnapped in front of her parents from their home in Sumundhari, Faisalabad. Dilawar, the child’s father, said they were asleep when a Muslim man, Muhammad Qasim, broke into their home and took away their daughter. He threatened them with death if they told anyone about it. Consequently, he converted and married Persicla.
On September 17, 2020 almost two months after her disappearance, Saneha Kinza Iqbal, the daughter of a pastor appeared in the court of Lahore, dressed in a burqa and accompanied by almost 20 family members of her husband who is twice her age. The teenager claimed to have embraced Islam, got married with her free will and expressed that her parents are now a threat to her. On the marriage certificate her age is 20 years contrary to her school certificate and baptism certificate where she is 16. This is a popular way to hide forced conversions to Islam — to say the girl was 18 at the time, and show a fake age certificate or say she had reached puberty. It is claimed that the girl is an adult, and no more questions are asked.
In August, 2020 a teenage Hindu girl, Simran Kumari, from Ghotki, was kidnapped and then miraculously resurfaced at the shrine of Bharchundi Sharif of Mian Mitha, infamous for converting thousands of Hindu girls to Islam. Kumari’s family members are now forbidden to see their daughter and she has been married off to her Muslim kidnapper.
The 12-year-old, Chashman Gulzar, was said to have been imprisoned by a 45-year-old Muslim man for five months, during the period she was forced to shovel dung all-day, while she was attached to a chain. Chashman was found with cuts from the shackles on her ankles when she arrived to her parents.
Minority girls suffer several jeopardies in Pakistan, vulnerabilities include being financially weak, as children, as females and as religious minorities. Day after day, terrible and heart-wrenching stories come to light prompting concerns about the need to protect vulnerable minority girls from forced conversions. The names change, the places change, the dreadful stories remain the same. Rinkle, Raveena, Mehek or Arzoo, their fates are linked by their faith.
At least 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forcibly converted to Islam in the country annually, according to Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s report “State of Human Rights 2019”. According to the Centre for Social Justice, the number of incidents of forced conversion surged once again in 2021. The year saw an increase of 80% as compared to 2020 and 50% as compared to 2019. Data show that episodes of forced conversion are accompanied by a range of other criminal offenses, including, but not limited to, assault, kidnapping, abduction, forced marriage, child marriage, statutory rape, rape, gang-rape, forced prostitution, and use of force. The fear of kidnapping and conversion has had an impact even on affluent Hindu and Sikh families, who, over the years, have even stopped their girls from getting an education after primary school. They say that this is the only way for them to protect vulnerable girls.
Recent Status of Legislation
On October 13 2021 in the 12th meeting of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversion, Senator Liaqat Khan Tarakai, the chairperson, unilaterally announced that the draft on The Prohibition of Forced Conversions Act 2021 (the Bill) was “dismissed”. He did so without hearing arguments of religious minority parliamentarians. Earlier in September, The Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony (MoRA&IH) raised several objections on this bill drafted by the Federal Ministry of Human Rights (MoHR). “After a discussion with notorious Mian Mithoo, Council of Islamic Ideology and Ministry of Religious Affairs object over the bill to stop forced conversions”, tweeted Lal Chand Malhi, a member of the Committee from the ruling party. Mian Abdul Haq aka Mian Mithoo is basking in popularity brought on by forced conversions and marriages of minor Hindu girls in Sindh he arranges.
The MoRA&IH mainly has raised objections to the following provisions in the bill; 1) The draft bill provides that any non-Muslim, who is not a child, and is able and willing to convert to another religion will apply for a conversion certificate from an additional sessions judge of the area. The application would have to include the name of the non-Muslim, age and gender, CNIC number, details of parents, siblings, children and spouse (if any), current religion and the reason to convert to the new religion; 2) The additional sessions judge would set a date for interview within seven days of receipt of an application, and on the given date the judge will ensure that the conversion is not under any duress and not due to any deceit or fraudulent misrepresentation; 3) The judge may award a time period of 90 days to the non-Muslim to undertake a comparative study of the religions and return to the office of the additional sessions judge. If satisfied, the judge would offer the certificate for change of religion. Evidently, objections on these points embody antipathy for minorities.
Nevertheless, the concerns regarding forced conversion are not a new phenomenon for this region. The All India Muslim League adopted a Resolution in December, 1927 at Calcutta which addressed the issue of forced conversion. Historian Ghulam Ali Allana’s book Pakistan Movement: Historic Documents describes the League’s demand as follows, “Every individual or group is at liberty to convert or re-convert another by argument or persuasion, but that no individual or group shall attempt to do so or prevent its being done by force, fraud or other unfair means, such as the offering of material inducement. Persons under eighteen years of age should not be converted unless it be along with their parents or guardians”.
So, almost a century ago the All India Muslim League chalked out the rules for conversion. The MoRA&IH should consult history to seek the answers of their objections.
What Does the Law Say?
A discrepancy endures between the legal safeguards enshrined under the Constitution, the human rights instruments ratified by Pakistan and the criminal justice system practices on the ground. Pakistan has endorsed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion, but no one shall be subject to compulsion to change their religion. In case of Pakistan, once the girls convert, there is no going back, as estrangement would mean a death sentence. In many cases, girls are also told that their families are ‘kafirs’ (disbelievers in God) and they cannot meet them. It curbs their access to justice as they remain in the control of men who converted them. No one hears from these girls directly after they ‘abscond’ or get kidnapped.
Since 2010, Pakistan is a party to the International Covenant on Civil and Political rights where Article 18(4) respects for the right of parents to determine their child’s religion up to the age of maturity in conformity with their own convictions.
Pakistan ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1990 where Article 14 (2) describes, “States Parties shall respect the rights and duties of the parents and, when applicable, legal guardians, to provide direction to the child in the exercise of his or her right to freedom of religion in a manner consistent with the evolving capacities of the child.”__Courtesy The Friday Times