January 10, 2023
A letter written by a group of Special Rapporteurs to the Government of Pakistan expresses regret about the current situation of forced conversions in the country and has pushed the government to take action against these grievous human rights violations.
The letter was written by the Special Rapporteurs on minority issues, freedom of religion or belief, sale and sexual exploitation of children (including child prostitution, child pornography, and child sexual abuse material); contemporary forms of slavery (including its causes and consequences); trafficking in persons, especially women and children; violence against women and girls, and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls.
The UN Special Rapporteurs have expressed serious concern about the practice of forced conversions and marriages affecting women and girls from religious minorities, with particular reference to the cases of Mehwish Patras, Chashman Kanwal, Zarvia Pervaiz, and Saba Nadeem, members of the Christian and Hindu communities in Pakistan between the ages of 13 and 20 years at the time of their abductions. The girls were all reportedly forcibly converted to Islam and married against their free will. In six out
of seven of these cases, the victim was underage at the time of the forced
marriage and the consent of their legal guardians were not provided.
The letter detailed that these victims were taken from their cities or provinces of origin, deprived of contact with their families, raped and/or forcibly married, and forced to convert to Islam, sometimes under the threat of violence and with the direct involvement of religious clerics.
These women and girls are then forced by their abductors to appear before courts and give testimony and/or sign official documents which attest to their being of age and having married and converted to Islam of their own free will. The coercion takes place under the threat of violence against them or their families.
IMPUNITY OF PERPETRATORS
Meanwhile, the perpetrators enjoy significant impunity and are partly enabled by the actions of the security forces and the justice
system. The victims’ family members report that their complaints are not taken seriously by police when they go for reporting.
Reportedly, the police in some instances have often convinced family members to sign documents that attest to their children being of age using fraudulent practices such as allowing illiterate people to sign written documents, or having complainants sign a blank piece of paper that is subsequently filled in by the police with information indicating that the victim in question was of age.
In other instances, police have reportedly informed families that they have no jurisdiction to intervene, describing the abductees’ relationship with their
abductors as “love marriages” and providing the families with documentation
from the girls’ abductors which attests to their voluntary marriage and
When victims or their families finally succeed in lodging complaints and
bringing cases of abduction, early and forced marriage, and forced conversion before the courts, their cases are often eventually dismissed due to alleged interference by the defendants, highlighted the letter. Defendants reportedly produce certificates of marriage and conversion and written or videotaped statements from the victims that attest to the victims’ being of age and having married and converted of their own free will; however, these documents are often prepared without the victim’s knowledge or consent, or the victim’s participation is secured only through coercion and under duress, as is reportedly the case with victims’ written and videotaped statements of consent to conversion and marriage.
Abductors also use religion as a tool and appeal to the religiosity of the police and judiciary by emphasizing that they have converted a non-believer to Islam.
Courts often fail to undertake a critical examination of such
documents submitted by the abductors and their families to determine or
statements made by the victims do determine whether they were falsified or
produced under duress, but rather accept these documents at face value.
This is true even in instances where documents from other sources, such as
the victims’ schools, religious institutions, families, or the Government’s
National Database and Registration Authority contradict the documents
submitted by abductors and their families with regard to the victim’s age.
Courts reportedly issue orders on the basis of these fraudulent documents that order victims to remain with their abductors and in some instances, to refrain from contact with their families.
VIOLATION OF INTERNATIONAL LAWS
if allegations by families and victims prove to be accurate, they would be in violation of the victims’ rights to liberty and security, to freedom from slavery and servitude, freedom from torture and other forms of inhuman treatment, protection against trafficking for purposes of forced marriage, domestic servitude and sexual exploitation, freedom to enter marriage only on the basis of their free and full consent, to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion, to equal protection of the law without any discrimination, to freedom from arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or correspondence, and in the case of underage victims, additionally to education.
The Special Rapporteurs said they were deeply concerned regarding the apparent non-application of relevant provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code, including Section 498-B (prohibition of forced marriage), Sections 375 and 376 (definition of and punishment for rape, including the categorization of sexual intercourse with a girl under sixteen years of age, with or
without consent, as rape), Section 365-B (criminalization of kidnapping, abducting, or inducing a woman to compel marriage under duress), Section 361 (criminalization of kidnapping a minor – a person aged under sixteen years of age if female – from their legal guardian), and Section 364-A (criminalizing the kidnapping of a minor under fourteen to subject them to slavery or sexual abuse).
In many of the cases described, only a subset of the relevant provisions to the case was applied and in other cases, no criminal charges were filed at all despite multiple violations of the Pakistan Penal Code evident in the case history. Several of the mentioned cases also violate the Child Marriage Restraint Act which sets the minimum age of marriage at 16 for girls and the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act which sets the minimum age of marriage as 18 for both males and females.
The failure of the Parliament of Pakistan to adopt further legislation that would specifically address the issue of forced conversion and marriage
impacting minority women and girls.
This includes the Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Bill (2020), which would have provided protection and assistance to victims of forced conversions, increased prison sentences for the crime of kidnapping and forcibly converting underage minority girls, and defined marriage between a Muslim man and a minor of another religion as forced marriage, and therefore null and void.
This bill was rejected by the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony in September 2020, with some members of the Committee arguing that minorities in Pakistan already enjoyed sufficient rights while others reasoned that forced conversions of minorities in Pakistan was less of an issue in comparison to the treatment of minorities in India.
Subsequently, the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions, with assistance from the Federal Ministry of Human Rights drafted the Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill (2021).
However, this bill was effectively shelved by the intervention of the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony and the Council of Islamic Ideology, who deemed the bill socially divisive, un-Islamic, and contrary to Sharia, citing inter alia Bill’s establishment of a minimum age of 18 years old for conversion, the need to make a statement of conversion before a judge, and the need for a mandatory waiting period before conversion.
Separately, the Special Rapporteurs also expressed concern regarding the low rates of birth registration in Pakistan, where only 42 percent of children under five have their births registered. According to UNICEF, Pakistan accounts for 9 percent of all unregistered children globally. There are significant disparities in birth registration within Pakistan, with the poorest households, those who do not speak Urdu or Punjabi, and rural communities facing worse registration outcomes. Marginalized groups including minorities,
refugees and children with disabilities face additional challenges in registering their births, resulting in discriminatory policies.
REQUESTS FROM THE PAKISTANI GOVERNMENT
The Special Rapporteurs have asked the Pakistani Government to provide detailed information on the whereabouts and well-being of Chashman Kanwal, and Zarvia Pervaiz, who remain separated from their families, as well as any efforts by the Government to ensure their safety. Along with this, the government should give details on how it has taken any steps to investigate allegations of forced and early marriage, rape, forced conversion, child sexual abuse, and abduction in the above cases, and hold perpetrators,
including clerics and security forces and Judges complicit in these acts,
accountable in the cases mentioned in the letter.
They asked for the provision of information on measures taken to ensure
the rights of women and girls from religious minorities to liberty and
security of person, to freedom from slavery and servitude, to enter
marriage only on the basis of their free and full consent, to equal
protection of the law without any discrimination, and freedom from
arbitrary interference with their privacy, family, home or
correspondence, and how these measures are compatible with
Pakistan’s international human rights obligations.
The Government has been asked to provide information on concrete measures for freedom for religious minorities, especially regarding their constitutional rights; measures to ensure the rights of children, particularly girls, in line with the Convention on the Rights of the Child and its Optional Protocol on the sale of children, child prostitution, and child pornography.
The government should give information on measures taken to prevent
harmful practices such as child and forced marriages, and freedom to marry with free and full consent, in line with Pakistan’s international human rights obligations, in particular, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.