Census 2022, forced conversions top concerns for minority councillors

    A human rights body has called on minority councilors to register voters and birth certificates in their areas as well as intervene in cases of forced conversions.

    “As per the data of census 2017, the total population of religious minorities in Pakistan in 2017 was 3.54%, however in 1998, it was 3.72%, showing a 0.18% decrease with 0.5% decrease in Christian population. Christians in Pakistan were 1.55% in 1981, increased to 1.58% in 1998, and drastically fell to 1.27% in 2017 with no concrete reason given,” said Center for Social Justice Director Peter Jacob.

    “In 2020, 15 cases were highlighted in the media but in 2021 some 60 cases were reported in which around 70 percent of girls who were converted forcibly were under 18 years of age,” he added.

    During his opening presentation, Jacob informed the participants about the ambiguities in the minority population in the 2017 census, the situation of forced conversions in 2021 and the implementation status of Local Government Ordinance 2020.

    He was speaking at a provincial convention of minority representatives on “Effective and Empowered Minority Representation in Local Government System” to highlight the issues faced by minority representatives. Councillors and socio-political leaders from 13 districts of Punjab attended the event organised by CSJ.

    The convention lauded the issuance of the Local Govt Ordinance 2020 and the idea of a direct election on majority seats and each level, and demand for elections as soon as possible. The speakers, including activists and politicians, called for timely elections, protection of minorities from forced conversions, counting minorities in the upcoming census, empowerment of minority councillors, and emphasis on meaningful participation of the minority at each level.

    Punjab Minister of Human Rights and Minority Affairs Ijaz Alam Augustine called for devolving power to the grassroot levels and minorities.

    “During the last 20 years we have seen different local government systems, but we also saw that in each system minority representation was not effective and empowered as it should be,” he said.

    “Our political parties have a system where we don’t want to devolve power, no one wants to delegate power. MPAs and MNAs themselves don’t want their local influence to be shared. It’s time that minority representatives at each level should take action and be vocal for their effective and empowered representation,” he added.

    Augustine said that the new local bodies act had a lot of opportunities for minorities, especially since they could get direct votes. Also, 30 percent of the provincial funds would go to the local government system. There was also direct funding of the local bodies, he added.

    He called for changing the mindset of discrimination against minorities by rising above party lines. He also mentioned several issues that plagued minorities at a local level because of which they needed a stronger connection with the provincial and federal governments, and that could only be done through the LG system.

    Barrister Mubeen Qazi praised the government for introducing the Local Government Ordinance 2020 that allows direct election at 60% seats and encourages panel/group elections. But pursuant to Article 140-A of the Constitution, the Punjab government should complete the system of local government as soon as possible and transfer political, administrative and financial responsibilities and powers to the elected representatives of local governments, he said.

    PTI’s Member of the Punjab Assembly Uzma Kardar, PML-N MPA Salma Butt and Shazia Geroge, a former member of PCSW, shared their point of view on violence against women and aggravated situation of forced conversions and demanded the government enact laws to protect young girls and women.

    According to CSJ, 60 cases of questionable conversions were reported last year. The victims include 30 Christians and 30 Hindus. The highest number of 32 cases was reported in Sindh, 26 in Punjab, and one each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan provinces.

    Seventy percent of the victims were less than 18 years of age. Sixty-three percent were 14 or below while eight percent were above 18 years of age.

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