Every year, over a thousand minor girls and women from Pakistan’s religious minority communities are abducted, forcefully converted to Islam and are married off every year, inquiry by a British-led All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) has revealed.
The figure is an estimation based on extensive probe, but not accurate since “true numbers may never be ascertained,” the APPG on Pakistani Minorities says, adding at places in its inquiry report that what it has found is “a tip of the iceberg.”
This has gone on since Pakistan’s birth in 1947 in the absence of laws passed at federal and provincial levels. The few that are in force are either ignored or not known to the police and the courts. The general law (Anglo-Saxon law prevalent in South Asia) and Islamic Sharia are expediently used to favour the perpetrators. Of some help are provisions of the British-era Pakistan penal Code, enacted in 1860.
The report, published in September 2021. Chaired by Jim Shannon MP, Chair, APPG for Pakistani Minorities and Chair, APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, is authored and edited by Councillor Morris Johns, Dr Ewelina Ochab, Professor Javaid Rehman and Nicholas Preston.
A line that runs through the report speaks of ‘impunity’ – by all sections of the Pakistani polity. It includes the government of the day at federal and provincial levels, the lawmakers, political parties, the bureaucracy, the judiciary, especially at the lower levels, the police and most significantly, clerics and leaders of society in the Muslim majority nation.
There is a strong perception at all levels that they are doing service to their religion, viz. Islam, and that they will get protection for whatever they do.
The report focuses on the cases of Christian and Hindu girls between the ages of 12 – 25, of religious minorities including Hindus (1.59%) and Christians (1.60%) of Pakistan’s 220 million population. Buddhists, Sikhs and Kalash are also surveyed with the help of their representative bodies, field surveys and by individuals who appeared before the probe body.
Among the salient recommendations are appointment of a National Minorities Commission, and similar bodies at the provincial level, particularly in Sindh and Punjab where the exploitation of women is particularly acute.
The report urges education of the courts and ‘disciplining’ of the police, both of whom, favour the perpetrators against the victims. It wants government agency NADRA to build data to be used by police and the court to determine the age of the minors and not subject to ‘intrusive’ medical tests that cannot determine the precise age.
The police and the courts invariably rely on the claims by the clerics who are behind the conversion and who contend that a girl is ‘marriageable’ under Islam if she has reached puberty and is menstruating.
The commission urges uniform age of 18 years, for both men and women and across the country without exception citing the negative impact of premature marriage for both on their physical and psychological health besides causing socio-economic setback.
The overwhelming number of cases, it notes, are among the poor and mostly illiterate, of women from the lowest social strata, often the neglected and the discriminated sections, mostly engaged in domestic or lowly economic jobs. They are vulnerable to exploitation, violence, bullying, pressures and false promises.
The modus operandi is often simple, the report notes. The girl is abducted, converted to Islam and immediately married to one of the abductors who enjoys the family’s and social support. The victim is separated from parents who approach law. The police, often abusive, refuse to register cases. Clerics who are behind conversion and marriage step into the court where judges get threatened, also cajoled that they would be performing service to their faith. Witnesses cited a threatening and oppressive atmosphere in the court. And once the verdict is given, “there are celebrations.”
Such cases have been increasing steadily in recent years in Pakistan, the report says.
The APPG wants Pakistan to introduce an online portal and a free call line to report such cases. It should also ensure that cases of abductions, forced conversion and forced marriages of religious minority women and girls are heard in the court of an Additional Session Judge.
The APPG also wants Pakistan to introduce special shelters for victims of forced conversions and forced marriages. To provide guidance, protection and assistance to persons who have been victims of abductions, forced conversion and forced marriages, and their families, especially where the victims are minors.
As Britain is the largest contributor of aid to Pakistan in the social sector, it urges the British Government to ensure that any aid programme design is inclusive of the vulnerability and access challenges faced by women and girls from religious minorities, especially those who belong to lower castes.
At the global level, it recommends the Bri5ish Government to persuade other members of the UN to join and sponsor a resolution in the Human Rights Council against forced conversions and forced marriages of religious minority women and girls. Critical of Pakistan overall, it says the federal and provincial governments of Pakistan so far have failed to take action to address the issue and protect its most vulnerable citizens.