Abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage in Pakistan
Women and girls from religious minority backgrounds – Christians, Hindus, Hazara and Ahmadi – are disproportionately targeted with specific forms of sexual and gender based violence, such as ideologically motivated sexual grooming.
Women face systematic challenges in Pakistan, including high prevalence of different forms of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV). Women and girls from religious minority backgrounds – Christians, Hindus, Hazara and Ahmadi – are disproportionately targeted with specific forms of SGBV and gender-based discrimination such as ideologically motivated sexual grooming, abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages. According to Human Rights Commission Pakistan, around 1000 cases of forced marriages and abductions of religious minority girls were reported in the province of Sindh alone in 2018. Most of the victims come from economically marginalized backgrounds. The cases of abduction, forced marriage and forced conversion illustrate how gender, class, socio-economic status and religious affiliation are deeply entangled.
Convictions of perpetrators of these crimes are rare. The police regularly fail to act in response to complaints from parents, even if the girls are under-age. The police might claim that the girl has chosen to elope of her own free accord, and therefore it is not something for the police to investigate. This emboldens the perpetrators to threaten the families of the girls with more violence if they do not refrain from searching for their daughters. The marginalised position of the families of the girls might also make them unable to challenge the case in court. If the case is taken to the court, perpetrators sometimes provide falsified marriage certificates and confirmation of the conversions from imams. The perpetrators often have support from religious groups who are well-connected to those with political power. Girls may also be forced to confirm that the marriage and conversion was voluntary from her side and lie about her age. This makes the judge unable and/or unwilling to challenge the forced conversion and marriage. Even if the marriage is dissolved, it is still difficult to legally reverse a conversion to Islam.
Evidence gathered by the Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) shows that there is a pattern of girls and women being targeted for sexual grooming, not only out of sexual predation but as a wider political project to hurt the religious minority and create a religiously homogenous society. The act of ‘acquiring’ of women from the religious minority is intended to symbolise the superiority of the religion of the majority. At the same time, it is also intended to humiliate the religious minority by bringing about shame. The loss of women is equated with the loss of honour, since women’s bodies in many ways represent the community’s honour.
The right to freedom of religion or belief is set out in Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan and the Supreme Court judgement from 2014 broadened the scope of this article and directed the Government to take concrete actions to address the discrimination including developing school curricula that promotes religious harmony and setting up a taskforce to address religious intolerance. Article 25 of the Constitution further states that all citizens are equal before the law and are entitled to equal protection of law, and Article 35 of the Constitution assumes responsibility to protect the marriage, the family, the mother and the child. The Pakistan Penal Code in its Section 364 (A) criminalises kidnapping and abduction of girls and women as well as forced marriages (Section 365 (B). There is no specific federal law prohibiting domestic violence.
Pakistan has adopted several international instruments to eliminate child, early and forced marriage. It ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990 which sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 and it has also ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) which guarantees free and full consent to marriage.
Prime Minister Imran Khan made repeated commitments to protect religious minorities in the country. In February 2020, he said: “I want to warn our people that anyone in Pakistan targeting our non-Muslim citizens, or their places of worship will be dealt with strictly. Our minorities are equal citizens of the country.” Yet, there are allegations of him in 2019 hosting at his residence one of the main clerics behind the campaign of forced conversions in Sindh. Furthermore, the respect for the right to freedom of religion or belief was promised to Pakistan’s religious minorities by the country’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah in 1947: “You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the state.”
The religious minorities in Pakistan continue to be marginalised in multiple ways and they face hate speech, violent attacks and persistent discrimination in Pakistan. Blasphemy laws continue to be used to target religious minorities who are disproportionately accused under these laws. In 2020, despite criticism from human rights organisations, Pakistan was elected as a member of the UN Human Rights Council, the most important intergovernmental body within the UN system responsible for the promotion and protection of all human rights around the globe. The members of the Human Rights Council are expected to uphold the highest standards of human rights.
In March 2021, Kavita Oad, a 13-year-old Hindu girl was abducted, forcibly converted and married in Sindh province. On 8th of March, five men, some carrying pistols, entered Kavita’s family house and dragged her into a vehicle before driving a way. The next day, a video was released of Kavita sitting on the floor, surrounded by hundreds of men singing maulood (praise for the Prophet in Sindhi language). When the family attempted to seek justice through filing a case, they were faced with pressures from the abductors to withdraw their case and their house was set on fire by thugs, her younger brother injured, and their valuables were stolen. The family already belonged to a financially marginalized class. The perpetrators are still free even though their identity is well-known.
Your team works for the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights in Geneva, and you are on an official visit to Pakistan. You have been alerted to the issue of forced conversion and abductions of religious minority girls in Pakistan during a meeting with a local women’s rights NGO. The case of Kavita Oad has received some coverage in the international newspapers as well and you have discussed the case with your colleagues. You all agree that your delegation should talk to your contacts within the Government to raise the concerning case of Kavita Oad within the wider context of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages of religious minority girls. You have approached your contacts at the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Pakistan and a meeting with their team has been secured for next week.