UN human rights experts have urged the Pakistani government to make immediate efforts to curb the rise in abductions, forced marriages and conversions of underage girls and young women from religious minorities.
“We urge the government to take immediate steps to prevent and thoroughly investigate these acts objectively in line with domestic legislation and international human rights commitments. Perpetrators must be held fully accountable,” the experts said in a statement issued in Geneva on Monday, according to a media report.
The experts are Tomoya Obokata, special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; Mama Fatima Singhateh, special rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, including child prostitution, child pornography, and other child sexual abuse material; Reem Alsalem, special rapporteur on violence against women and girls, its causes and consequences; 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, especially women and children; Dorothy Estrada-Tanck (Chair), Ivana Radacic (Vice-Chair), Elizabeth Broderick; and 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,” the experts said.
“We are very concerned that such marriages and conversions take place under threat of violence to these girls and women or their families,” they said.
Noting Pakistan’s previous attempts to pass legislation that will prohibit forced conversions and protect religious minorities, the experts deplored the ongoing lack of access to justice for victims and their families. Reports suggest these so-called marriages and conversions take place with the involvement of religious authorities and the complicity of security forces and the justice system.
These reports also indicate that the court system enables these offences by accepting, without critical examination, fraudulent evidence from perpetrators regarding victims’ adulthood, voluntary marriage, and conversion. Courts have on occasion misused interpretations of religious law to justify victims staying with their abusers.
“Family members say that victims’ complaints are rarely taken seriously by the police, either refusing to register these reports or arguing that no crime has been committed by labeling these abductions as love marriages,” the experts said.
“Abductors force their victims to sign documents which falsely attest to their being of legal age for marriage as well as marrying and converting of free will. These documents are cited by the police as evidence that no crime has occurred.”
The experts said it was imperative that all victims, regardless of religious background, were afforded access to justice and equal protection under the law
“Pakistani authorities must adopt and enforce legislation prohibiting forced conversions, forced and child marriages, kidnapping, and trafficking, and abide by their international human rights commitments to combat slavery and human trafficking and uphold the rights of women and children,” they said.
FORCED CONVERSIONS & MARRIAGES
Cases of abduction, subsequent forced conversion, and marriages of young minority girls are not uncommon in Pakistan.
Such cases are mostly reported in Punjab and Sindh which house a large number of Christians and Hindus, respectively. Human rights bodies have often called on minority councilors to intervene in cases of forced conversions, especially the ones involving minor girls.
Leaders of minority communities are also particularly concerned by the judiciary’s handling of cases of underage marriages involving minority girls.
As per the data of the 2017 national census, 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 the 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.
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.