Forced Conversion of Women and Girls Belonging to Religious Minorities in Pakistan
Author: Nicola Costantin
Department: Pakistan Team
Forced conversion of religious minorities is one of the major human rights violations currently occurring in Pakistan. It has been estimated that every year, 1000 women and girls from all religious minorities are abducted, forcibly converted and successively married off to their abductors (Ackerman, 2018). Amarnath Motumal, the former vice-chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, stated that 20, or even more, Hindu girls are abducted every month in Pakistan. While Responsible for Equality and Liberty (R.E.A.L., 2017), a volunteer group, estimated that between 20 to 25 Hindu girls are forcibly converted every month (R.E.A.L., 2017). For the sake of the paper, however, it should be mentioned that both the Government of Pakistan and some scholars have disputed the data on abduction, forced conversions and marriages (APPG, 2021; Hussain, 2020).
Still, there is no precise data produced by the Government of Pakistan which examines with due diligence the issue of forced conversion. Consequently, this study, while acknowledging the gap in precise data, will only use official statistics and records from reliable sources. For instance, the Centre of Social Justice (CSJ) conducted in-depth research of all the forced conversion cases from mainstream and social media, court orders, and police reports during the years 2013-2020, in order to overcome this lacunae. It appears that in a total of 162 cases of forced conversion, the issue affects all minority groups, although Hindu minor girls in Sindh province are the biggest victims (Ali, 2021). Precisely, according to the collected data by the CSJ, 88 (54 percent) victims were Hindu girls, while 72 (44 percent) were Christians, 1 (0.62 percent) were Sikhs, and 1 (0.62 percent) were Kalash (CSJ, 2020). Instead, province wise, 84 (51.85 percent) of cases had occurred in the Punjab province; 71 (43.83 percent) of these incidents had also taken place in Sindh, while 2 (1.23 percent) each were reported in the Federal and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa areas, and 1(0.62 percent) occurred in Balochistan (CSJ, 2020). Moreover, the report reveals another tragic aspect ( i.e. almost half the converted victims were minors). Yet, 37 percent of cases did not mention the age, consequently, the ratio might likely be even higher (CSJ, 2020). The CSJ worryingly stated that these numbers are only the tip of the iceberg because many cases will never be reported at all due to the socio-economic and cultural position of those vulnerable to attack (CSJ, 2020).
This research will focus on this major issue, namely Pakistan and the forced conversion of religious minorities. Firstly, it will analyse the international obligations that Pakistan must comply with under international human rights law. Then, the focus will be switched to the national level, exploring the national law and its lacunae. Finally, it will look at certain motivations why this issue is still present in Pakistan. Length-wise, this paper presents major limitations because it cannot take into consideration all the drivers of this phenomenon.
International Human Rights Obligations
Pakistan has ratified several international human rights treaties which contain guarantees of protection of individuals belonging to minorities, gender equality and non-discrimination.
The most important ones, in this case, are enclosed in the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC, 1989) and in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966). The CRC is the first universal instrument to recognise that a child has rights that must be strongly respected by State Parties (CRC, 1989). Indeed, State Parties must provide special protection for children in the exercise of their rights under the Convention and submit periodical reports to the CRC Committee on national implementations in the exercise of these rights (CRC, 1989). Specifically, according to Article 14 CRC, State Parties must respect a “child’s right to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, making clear that Governments should not interfere with children’s religious freedoms, beliefs and identities (CRC, 1989; Ali, 2021). Recognition of the rights of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in accordance with this international convention is considered a fundamental human rights value (Ali, 2021).
Pakistan has additionally ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR, 1966), which guarantees individuals (not only children) from early and forced marriages (APPG, 2021). Article 23(3) of the ICCPR states that “no marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses”, explicitly prohibiting forced marriages.
However, in Pakistan, the ratification of international treaties must pass through an executive act (Ali, 2019). Therefore, an international agreement cannot be applied as law, unless the Government passes a specific conversion law addressing that treaty which gives full enforcement power within its jurisdiction (Shehla Zia vs. WAPDA, 1994). Thus, the responsibility to enact the international obligations through a precise law is laid on the Parliament. When this does not take place, the Member State, in this case, Pakistan, would be in violation of its international agreements. It is indeed fundamental to note that, under International Law (IL), State Parties have positive duties to protect children and individuals not only from their agents but also against acts committed by private persons or entities that would impair the enjoyment of these human rights. In other words, they have positive obligations to prevent human rights violations from occurring within their jurisdiction.
Pakistani Legal Safeguards to Freedom of Religion
Pakistan has implemented these international principles – including the rights of children – in the different parts of Pakistani legislation.
Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan covers a key role in protecting religion (Constitution of Pakistan, 1973). Precisely, the meaning of Article 20 provides assurances to “all citizens of the country” – regardless of their age and religion – the right to profess and practice religion. Neither the majority religious groups nor minority religious groups can impose their religious will on other citizens (Ali, 2021). As the Supreme Court (2014) stated, individual freedom based on religion is fundamental to liberal democracy and should not be restricted. Of course, there might be situations in which someone is free to accept another religion but, as a Family Court continued, no one has the fundamental right to convert him/her to another religion if he/her does not do so of his/her free choice (Ghulam Mustafa vs. Judge Family Court, 2021; Ali, 2021).
Pakistan’s Penal Code (1860) offers specific legislation of Offences Against Women, including the offence of Prohibition of forced marriage. Article 498B reads:
“whoever coerces or in any manner whatsoever compels a woman to enter into marriage shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to seven years or for a term which shall not be less than three years and shall also be liable to fine of five hundred thousand rupees.”
Here, the law is extremely ineffective, vague, and with substantial legal lacunae. In order to appreciate who a “woman” is, it is necessary to examine other different legal acts, such as the Criminal Law (Amendment Act) of 2016. The Amendment Act, for instance, adds to the the normal definition of “women” also a “female child as defined in the Child Marriage Restraint Act (2013), or a non-Muslim woman”. The latter description, “a non-Muslim woman” leads to vagueness in the case of forced marriages of a non-Muslim female child (Ackerman, 2018). Further complications arise in practice whereby domestic courts provide legitimacy to child marriages based on Islamic Sharia law when an allegedly forced conversion happened, therefore undermining the Child Marriage Restraint Act (Ackerman, 2018; APPG, 2021; Ali, 2021).
Passing the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, Pakistan has also transferred legislative powers to Provinces. Consequently, it is also necessary to examine the Hindu Marriages Act of 2017 and the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act (2016). The former formalises the registration of Hindu marriages, creating valid evidence of marriage for Hindus and consequently making the case of forced marriages more difficult . Nevertheless, Section 12(iii) allows for divorce when one party ‘has ceased to be Hindu by conversion to another religion’, therefore creating a legal route that still facilitates forced conversion (Ackerman, 2018). Likewise, the latter was designed to provide a formal process for Hindus, Sikhs and Zoroastrians to register their marriages (Ackerman, 2018). However, it follows the same structure and leeway as the Hindu Marriages Act of 2017. Clause 12(a) iii allows for the termination of the marriage by conversion. hus failing to protect against the menace of forced conversion.
The last political development to mention is the 2016 Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill. It outlawed forced conversions (Chapter IV) and conversions before the age of 18 (“the age of majority”) (Chapter III). However, it failed to pass under the pressure from Islamic parties, forcing the Governor to formally approve this bill (Tunio, 2017).
Socio-economic Conditions and Lack of justice
Forced conversions are a massive human rights issue in Pakistan, which has become sort of a fanaticism (Ali, 2021). Religious minorities are often forced to convert to Islam under great pressure from society. It affects almost all religious minority groups in Pakistan, but the main victims are Hindu and Christian minor girls in Sindh province (BBC, 2014). Usually, these girls and women are kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam in order to get married or forced into prostitution (South Asia Partnership-Pakistan, 2015). This issue is strictly linked with the socio-economic and cultural position of these specific populations. Indeed, the so-called Untouchable, or Scheduled Castes (Dalits) in Pakistan are Hindus based in the Sindh region (IDSN, 2014). The major characteristic of these populations is that they are part of landless bonded labour. Although this practice was formally abolished in 1992, however, practically, it remains a common custom due to a lack of effective control over the problem.
For instance, a 14-year-old Jeevti from Sindh, the daughter of Hindu bonded labourers, was kidnapped by his landlord and converted to Islam because he claimed that the family owed him money (Ackerman, 2018). Noticeably, the mother of the young girl went to the police and to the local courts. However, authorities did nothing to act against this criminal act, raising another major problem within Pakistan: the lack of access to justice (Ackerman, 2018). Indeed, minority religious groups face great difficulties in the pursuit of justice. Pakistan is an Islamic State with a 96.28 percent Muslim population and a Hindu population of 1.60 percent, mostly concentrated in rural Sindh Province (Bureau of Statistics Pakistan, 2021). Consequently, it is not surprising that police forces are overwhelmingly Muslims, generally sympathising with the goal of converting religious minorities (Ali, 2021). For instance, police will frequently refuse to record a First Information Report (FIR) or falsify the information recorded on the FIR, thus denying the families involved the chance to make their case and bring forward complaints (Ali, 2021). As a result, during the process of prosecution and evidence, the girl remains within the custody of the culprit of the forced conversion, which makes it more likely for the victim to testify in the culprit’s favour, because the victim is afraid of ongoing pressure and physical retaliation (Ali, 2021).
The last point discussed by this research is the application of the Sharia law instead of the State law. Indeed, there are deep inconsistencies in practice whereby domestic courts provide legitimacy to child marriages based on Islamic Sharia laws. In this way, it can be said that the victims are abused twice, by forcibly converting her in the first place and through legitimising the illegal marriage by the authorities (AGGP, 2021). The Court, in deciding upon the forced conversion of a minor, stated that “When a girl from a religious minority is converted to Islam, Islamic laws will apply to her. Islamic law permits the marriage of underage girls after the girl has experienced her first menstrual cycle” (AGGP, 2021).
One motive for applying Sharia law is the great public pressure that police and courts receive. Personal religious convictions or ties to local powerful Muslim leaders mean that the police and courts do not diligently investigate, and therefore it is often too late to rescue the girls who have been kidnapped. Moreover, when a girl is brought before the court to confirm her willingness to the conversion, the courtroom is crowded with people shouting slogans for such conversion (Ali, 2021). Yet, if the police and the court are willing to legally proceed, most of the time the victims are not. Additionally, these victims are obliged to give statements in favour of their kidnappers under the threat of further maltreatments and/or cruelty against them and their families by the perpetrators (Ali, 2021). Indeed, forced conversion is a one-way street. It is also important to mention that many girls would not agree to denounce their kidnappers due to religious motivations. It is also common that re-acceptance in the family and culture is not simply possible after this, because they would further insult their families.
The forced conversion issue is deeply embedded in Pakistani society. Pakistan’s minority girls and women, unfortunately, have to deal with systematic religious discrimination and a lack of proper criminal justice in dealing with forced conversion. Moreover, forced conversion is often used to conceal other crimes, such as sexual and physical violence, kidnappings, abduction and rape. The advancement of Pakistan to follow international human rights law is slow and inadequate. Pakistan is under a commitment to enact comprehensive laws that will cover the offence of forced conversion in an extensive way.
Ackerman, R. (2018). Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages In Sindh, Pakistan. CIFORB, The University of Birmingham.
Ali, M.I. (2021). United Nations Convention On The Rights Of Child: Forced Conversion Of Hindu Minor Girls In Pakistan. Journal of Legal Studies Volume 28 Issue 42/2021
APPG. (2021). Abductions, Forced Conversions, and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Women and Girls in Pakistan.
BBC. (2014). Stories of forced conversion to Islam in Pakistan. Retrieved 20 May, 2022, from: https://www.bbc.com/news/av/world-asia-29008267.
Convention on the Rights of the Child. (1989). UN General Assembly. United Nations, Treaty Series.
Criminal Law (Amendment Act) 2016. Retrieved 20 May, 2022, from: http://www.na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1463738605_158.pdf
CSJ (2020). Silence of the Lamb III. Available at:http://www.csjpak.org/pdf/reports-studies/Fact_Sheet_on_Forced_Conversions.pdf
Ghulam Mustafa vs. Judge Family Court. (2021). CLC 204.
Hindu Marriage Act. (2017). Retrieved 20 May, 2022, from:http://www.na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1491458181_468.pdf
Hussain, G. (2020). Faith Conversions in Pakistan: Projections and Interpretations. Policy Perspectives 17(2):5.
IDSN. Pakistan Briefing Note. (2014). Retrieved 20 May, 2022, from: http://idsn.org/wpcontent/uploads/user_folder/pdf/New_files/Pakistan/Pakistan_briefing_not.pdf.
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. (1966). UN General Assembly. United Nations, Treaty Series, vol. 999.
Pakistan Bureau Of Statistic. (2021). Brief on Census – 2017. Pakistan Bureau of Statistic. Retrieved 20 May, 2022, from: https://www.pbs.gov.pk/content/brief-census-2017.
Pakistan Penal Code, (1860). Retrieved 20 May 2022, 2022, from:https://www.pakistani.org/pakistan/legislation/1860/actXLVof1860.html
R.E.A.L. (2010, March). Pakistan: 25 Hindu girls abducted every month; forcibly converted to Islam | Responsible for Equality And Liberty (R.E.A.L.). RESPONSIBLE FOR EQUALITY AND LIBERTY (R.E.A.L.). Retrieved 20 May, 2022, fromhttp://www.realcourage.org/2010/03/pakistan-25-hindu-girls-abducted-every-month/
Shehla Zia vs. WAPDA., (1994) PLD Supreme Court 693.
Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act. (2013). Retrieved 20 May 2022, 2022, from: http://rtepakistan.org/wp- content/uploads/2014/11/The-Sindh-Child-Marriages-Restraint-Act-2013.pdf
Supreme Court (2014). Suo Moto Case. SMC No.1. PLD 699.
The Constitution of The Islamic Republic of Pakistan. (1973). Retrieved 20 May 2022, 2022, from:https://na.gov.pk/uploads/documents/1333523681_951.pdf
Tunio, H. (2017, January 7). Sindh governor refuses to ratify forced conversion bill. The Express Tribune. Retrieved May 20, 2022, from https://tribune.com.pk/story/1287146/sindh-governor-refuses-ratify-forced-conversion-bill
 For more info about it, See General Comment No. 31, Nature of the Legal Obligation Imposed on State Parties to the Covenant, ICCPR/C/21/Rev.1/Add.13, para 8.
 The Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill. Available at: http://openparliament.pk/app/tables/files/The_Criminal_Law_(Protection_of_Minorities)_Bill,_201-6.pdf