Underaged Minority Girls in Pakistan Still Allegedly Forced Into Marriage and Religious Conversion
Media & Technical Coordinator
Global Human Rights Defence
Underaged minority girls from rural and low-income households in Pakistan are still allegedly abducted, raped, forced into religious conversion and marriage, and kept from their families.
Unconfirmed reports estimate that around 1000 young girls, often with low educational levels, disappear from their family homes each year to forcibly be converted to Islam through marriage, often within the span of just one day. This pattern of conversation has caused suspicion of coercion and falsified birth, marriage, and conversion certificates. When investigated, two conflicting stories unfold:
One where the family of the young girls show clear devastation and speak of – sometimes – violent abductions of their young family members, claiming they’re under the legal age for marriage.
And then the other side where the girls are said to be older, conflicting with the families statements. In this story, the girls also state on video how they willingly chose to convert and be with their husbands.
The families, in turn, claim the girls are being coached on what to say. The girls rarely make statements on their own or along with their family, but instead next to their husbands or religious clerics.
Whether it’s forced or voluntary, why this is happening is a complex issue and is said to have to do with matters including tradition, culture, and religion; lack of education and literacy; perceived benefits of child marriage; the application of Islamic law; and poverty.
Poverty is frequently highlighted as victims and converties often come from much lower economic backgrounds. Furthermore, the ones who wish to fight the attempts on their female family members rarely have enough resources to do so.
Religious minorities in Pakistan are often seen as second-class citizens, enduring poverty as well as systemic discrimination inlcuding: housing; work; and access to government welfare.
Minorities in poverty also inherit debt from their ancestors and are more likely to work as laborers and artisans. Once they have converted to Islam, they are free of debt and able to join the Muslim majority free from discrimination.
What appears to be the case is that converties are either looking for a life with more opportunity or they’re vulnerable members of society being taken advantage of.
It is difficult to discern what is really happening when word goes against the word, the proof is scant, and the legal system benefits the majority. What is clear, however, is conflict, discrimination, and devastation. It’s important that Pakistan properly regulates the process of conversion to avoid suspicions of coercion.
Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and the United Nations Populations Fund Pakistan are two organizations fighting for the rights for all people in Pakistan. The HRCP says that “a large number of children fall prey to abuse and exploitation due to serious gaps in the country’s child protection system.” And the UNFPA says that “Understanding the complex factors that perpetuate child marriage is key to ending it.”
Here is what they propose should happen:
- Implementation of measures aimed at combating forced conversions including better birth records in rural areas
- Raising the legal age for conversion to 18
- Taking the conversion process out of the hands of religious leaders and putting the authorization in the hands of the provincial government
- Advocating politically for policies that raise the legal age of marriage from 16 to 18 years old for both girls and boys, without exceptions.
- Using evidence to tailor interventions in areas where child marriage is rife.
- Implementing support programmes that empower girls at risk or who are currently in child marriages.
- Improve girls’ access to supported education choices.
- Enhance economic opportunities for girls and their families through employment options and supports
- Educate and sensitize communities on the harmful impact child marriage has on girls
Religious clerics have shown opposition toward setting an age limit on conversions, voicing disapproval of ‘such laws’ in an Islamic country. Furthermore, they have denied any wrongdoing and religious leader, Mian Mitha, argued in an interview with Radio Mashaal that “If the Prophet says not to convert people by force, then who am I to do it?”
If forced conversion and child and forced marriages (CFM) are truly happening, then Pakistan is breaching several international human rights treaties they’ve signed and ratified; “ratified” meaning that the state “assumes a legal obligation to implement the rights recognized in that treaty.” The treaties/conventions they’ve signed are:
The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR)
- Article 23 (3): “No marriage shall be entered into without the free and full consent of the intending spouses.”
The Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW)
- Article 16 (1b): “States Parties shall take all appropriate measures to eliminate discrimination against women in all matters relating to marriage and family relations and in particular shall ensure, on a basis of equality of men and women: The same right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent”
The Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC)
- Article 14 (1): “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion.”
Where there is suffering, change always seems to take too long. I know how powerless you can feel after consuming this type of news. Luckily, there are organizations out there working hard to solve this issue. If you feel inclined to do something you can head over to girlsnotbrides.org to support their members through donations, supporting a campaign, or joining their partnership.
If you want to learn more about what’s going on for minorities in Pakistan you can check out the Panel on Minority Groups in Pakistan hosted by the GHRTV.
Follow the GHRTV for more updates regarding this and other human rights issues.