March 1st, 2022
By Rehan Piracha
In a policy brief, the National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) has urged federal and provincial governments to immediately enact laws on the prohibition of forced conversion to protect children, especially girls from religious minority communities.
The commission touches upon the gaps in existing laws and the need for the prohibition of forced conversions in light of international obligations/commitments in its ‘Policy Brief on Forced Conversions with Recommendations After Analysis of the Arzoo Case’.
The policy brief analyses the case of a 13 years old Christian girl Arzoo Raja. She was kidnapped and forcibly converted and married to a 44 years old man namely Ali Azhar in the district south of Karachi as alleged by her parents.
The policy brief highlights issues relating to cases of forced conversions in the country. Victims of forced conversion encounter biased police investigation, threats, courtroom intimidation, and discrimination while pursuing their cases.
Biased police investigation
According to the policy brief, widespread biases against minorities exist amongst the officials of law enforcement agencies including the police. “These result in the reluctance on part of the police to initially register cases and once registered by not incorporating the proper sections of laws and after that not properly investigating the allegations of forced conversion.”
The policy brief notes that these biases stem from the general intolerance and hatred spread in the communities against minorities, which in turn affects the mindsets of people and succeeds in distancing the minorities.
“The best way to alleviate such biases would be to train police officers in matters relating to the sensitivity of forced conversion cases and creating awareness regarding the equal rights of minorities as enshrined in the Constitution of Pakistan and as recommended in the famous Supreme Court Judgment on Minority Rights and forced conversion,” reads the policy brief.
It has often been complained by the families of victims that the statements recorded and compiled in the form of a charge sheet are usually not based on facts, particularly when influential members of the community are involved. Sometimes the police officers also deny members of the minority community the right to register an FIR and do not follow the established criminal procedure.
For example, in 2005, a 13-year-old Hindu girl was allegedly converted to Islam in Mirpurkhas, Sindh. The court validated the marriage on a statement of consent. The police refused to investigate the circumstances of the alleged conversion or meet with the girl’s parents, the policy brief points out.
Threats to victims
The policy brief notes that most cases of forced conversions do not result in any concrete relief to the victim. “The abductors usually file a counter FIR against the family members of the girl or file court proceedings claiming that the family members of the girl are harassing the girl who has willfully converted and married the abductor and so is the case in Arzoo’s case,” reads the policy brief.
The reason why such cases fizzle out most of the time is because of the statements given by the victim under duress due to the intimidation and threats faced by her. These victims are usually abused and threatened to give statements in favour of the abductors or face further abuse and violence against them and their families.
The policy brief cites that the victim is usually left in the custody of the abductor during proceedings and therefore she has no alternative but to give evidence in favour of the abductor for fear of further abuse as witnessed in the Arzoo case.
“Many girls who become victims and trapped in such situations are aware that chances of social and cultural acceptance back in their religious communities are very minimal and thus do not want to further stigmatize their family and minimize the chances of matrimonial relations of their brothers and sisters and relatives.”
The policy brief gave instances of Manisha Kumari and Rinkle Kumari who were allegedly forced to convert from Hindu to Muslim in Sindh. Besides, it lists case of Myra Ayub in Faisalabad district of Punjab.
The policy brief relates how courts before which such cases are fixed also come under immense pressure when hearing cases relating to forced conversions.
In many cases when a girl is taken to court to verify whether she has converted of her own free will, the courtroom is packed with people chanting slogans in favor of such conversions. At times people celebrate the “conversion” of the girl outside the courtrooms.
“In the case of Rinkle Kumari case was transferred from Ghotki district to Sindh High Court principal seat at Karachi. This not only intimidates the girls giving statements but puts severe pressure on the judges and lawyers acting in such cases. The girl is made to testify and confirm whether she has truly converted to Islam on her free will in this hostile environment.”
Discrimination within judiciary
Victims of forced conversion face discrimination from members of the judiciary while pursuing their cases in courts, according to the policy brief.
“The general atmosphere of intolerance and inequality towards religious minorities penetrates into the all segment of society and members of judiciary too in some cases are overridden by ideological convictions rather than dictates of the law.”
Like the police, there may be certain biases within the members of the judiciary based on personal and religious beliefs that can cause hindrances in the dispensation of justice. “Further, the judiciary may come under immense direct and indirect pressure from; inter alia, religious extremists, which may result in the interpretation and application of laws selectively and unequally,” reads the policy brief.
The policy brief notes that the biases may be seen where a victims’ statements are recorded or accepted without further inquiry into the veracity of the statement made by the victims in forced conversion cases without going through the provisions of laws on the subject, or delayed as in the case of Arzoo such as whether the victim is acting under duress by her abductors and relying on the un-codified principles of consent and free will which may not be genuine or authentic.
‘Legislation on forced conversion need of the hour’
In its recommendations, the policy brief calls on the government to take measures for the prevention and prosecution of cases of girls undergoing forced conversions and marriages.
“In view of the above analysis, it is suggested that as the Government is duty bound to protect and fulfill the rights of all its citizens including the members of various religious faiths who suffer the issues of ‘forced conversion’, therefore, cases of such girls undergoing ‘forced conversions’ and related forced marriages are to be prevented, prosecuted and to provide them a redress,” the policy brief states in its recommendations to the federal and provincial governments.
“Promulgation of laws on Prohibition of Forced Conversion at National and Provincial level in the current situation is the need of the hour,” reads the top recommendation of the policy brief.
Besides, the policy brief also recommends that the government remove the inconsistencies between child marriage laws and various sections of the Pakistan Penal Code. For instance, Section 498-B of PPC should be made cognizable which pertains to forced and child marriages. It also calls for the removal of inconsistencies between personal laws when it comes to the conversion of girls under 18 years of age belonging to other faiths for marriage purposes.
Police to invoke provisions relating to abduction, kidnapping and marriage
The policy brief recommends that in order to curb cases of forced conversion and marriage police should invoke provisions of abduction, kidnapping, and marriage introduced in the Pakistan Penal Code through the Protection of Women (Criminal Laws Amendment) Act of 2006.
“Under Section 365-B of the PPC, no valid marriage can take place between the abductor and the person abducted as long as the latter remains in the power or control of her abductor,” the policy brief explains.
It cites sections 365-B (relating to kidnapping, abducting or inducing a woman to compel for marriage), 371-A (selling a person for purposes of prostitution), 366 A, 375, and 376 of the PPC that provide remedies for associated crime following forced marriage and forced conversion.
“Section 498B, PPC places prohibition on forced marriage with the punishment of imprisonment of either description for maximum 7 years and minimum 3 years and a fine of five hundred thousand rupees,” notes the policy brief.
Direction to district courts
The policy brief recommends that necessary instructions are to be given to the judges and magistrates of the district judiciary to follow the procedure meant for the disposal of cases of forced conversions and marriages.
“In cases of forced conversions, where child marriages are established and fundamental rights violations are proved to have taken place that be dealt by strict enforcement of legal prohibitions.”
Rights panel to engage provincial, federal govts
In its recommendations, the policy brief called on the National Commission on Human Rights, National Commission on Status of Women, National Commission on Rights of Child and similar mandated provincial commissions to engage with federal and provincial governments to advocate for such promulgation of laws relating to child marriages/forced marriages to ensure that legal framework provides protection to such girls belonging to various religious faiths entering into a marriage contract.
These human rights institutions ‘play a role of bridge between government and civil society and may initiate a national dialogue on the issue of forced conversion and connected matters of standardization of child marriages laws throughout the country’.
Civil society, media need to support victims
The policy brief recommends that civil society organisations and media outlets should avoid the hype around cases of forced conversion and refrain from highlighting the identity of victim girls and their families.
It suggests that civil society and media outlets adopt a victim-centered approach in helping families of forced conversion in accessing protection mechanisms and legal remedies including the provision of legal counseling, initiation of public interest litigation, and guidance about their rights.
The policy brief also calls for launching awareness campaigns for the rights of children and children of minorities considered more vulnerable.