April 6, 2023
By Rehan Piracha
A minority forum is quietly lobbying with government officials, political parties, media persons, and civil society organisations to secure the constitutional rights of religious minorities ahead of general elections in the country.
The National Lobbying Delegation (NLD) is a platform of 20 members working together to improve democratization and governance to secure the rights of religious minorities in Pakistan. The delegation comprises volunteers from civil society organizations, rights activists, journalists, lawyers, and educationists. A delegation of the forum recently met with Munizae Jahangir, senior journalist and board member of the Asma Jahangir Legal Aid Cell, to express concerns about religious minorities as well as press for raising the voices of marginalized communities on the mainstream media.
“There is a foremost need for increased political participation and representation of minority communities,” Jennifer Christine Jag Jivan, a member of the NLD, told Voicepk.net. The forum was lobbying with political parties to field at least five percent of party candidates from religious minorities on general seats in those constituencies where the religious minority population is high, she said.
“For instance, around 52% of the religious minority population resides in Umerkot and 46% minority population lives in Tharparker,” she pointed out.
Similarly, there are constituencies in Punjab and Sindh that have a sizeable population of Christians and Hindus respectively, Jennifer Jag Jivan said.
“A minimum of 5% reserved seats for women from religious minorities out of the total 60 reserved seats for women in the National Assembly should be allocated by all political parties to encourage and ensure inclusive participation of religious minority women in political leadership,” she added.
Draft Christian personal law
The forum is also lobbying for legislation and implementation of personal laws of Hindus, Christian, and Sikh religious minorities.
Sabir Michael, another member of the NLD, said there were two acts -the Christian Marriage Act of 1872 and the Christian Divorce Act of 1869- enforced in Pakistan since colonial times. In 2018, the NLD submitted a draft of Christian personal law to the Human Rights Ministry, then headed by Shireen Mazari. He said both acts relating to Christian marriage and divorce were clubbed under the draft law upon the request of Mazari. “The NLD wanted amendments to Christian marriage and divorce acts which were violative of human rights,” he explained.
Sabir Michael said the forum wanted that Christian divorce law should be treated as a social contract and not as a matter of religion. “These laws are silent on the matter of alimony and inheritance to women,” he added.
He said these laws were outdated and contained clauses that were not relevant to the current times. “There is a clause in the Christian Marriage Act that no marriage can take place at the time of night,” he pointed out. Similarly, the age of marriage has been set at 13 years.
“The forum has demanded the age of marriage should be set at 18 years and women should be given alimony and right of inheritance under the proposed Christian personal law,” he said.
“The forum has also advocated that Christian women should have the right to seek divorce on grounds other than that of adultery, impotence, violence and unnatural acts listed in the Christian Divorce Act,” Sabir Michael said.
The forum has lobbied with the government to get the proposed legisation on Christian personal law tabled in Parliament and have it passed, he said. However, the Christian clergy were opposing the draft law.
Working conditions of sanitary workers
The other major area of concern was the hazardous working conditions of sanitary workers most of whom are from religious minorities in the country.
“The sanitary workers, sewer men and sweepers are exposed to much infectious garbage and they are prone to disease and infections due to a lack of protective gear,” she said.
Moreover, sanitary workers are deprived of getting any social security benefits and health facilities in case of any serious illness or hospitalization due to the nature of their job. According to Jag Jivan, sanitary workers face discrimination at the workplace in both the education and the health sector due to their faith.
“The forum is lobbying for highlighting the plight of sanitary workers so that the government should take measures to improve health and financial insecurity issues of sanitary workers”
Jag Jivan said there is a dire need to highlight the significance of providing safety kits to sanitary workers and ensure its usage by them. “The NLD has lobbied with the provincial labour and social security departments and the Employees Old-Age Benefit Institution (EOBI) to take necessary actions to register private companies of sanitary workers so that all sanitary workers will be included in the social safety net.”
Jag Jivan said the NLD has demanded that sanitary workers, employed on contracts and daily wages, should be regularised as permanent workers in municipal corporations.
“Many sanitary workers from Sheikhupura and Sargodha districts have filed writs for regularising their employment but their cases are still pending in courts,” she said. The NLD has called for establishing a mechanism in municipal corporations, WASA, and private cleaning services companies to prevent any discrimination towards religious minority staff.
Sabir Michael said the forum was lobbying and advocating for the rights of minorities since its establishment in 2012. “Our basic philosophy is that instead of holding protests and demonstrations, the representatives should hold discussions with stakeholders comprising parliamentarians, government officials, political parties, and media personnel, to help redress concerns and issues faced by religious minorities in the country,” he told Voicepk.net.
The forum’s charter of demands includes political representation of minorities in upcoming elections, improvement in working condition of sanitary workers, and implementation of education and jobs quota to minorities guaranteed under the law and the Constitution.
“There is a need to take up and emphasize the implementation of the two percent education quota for students from religious minorities in higher education and provide them equal opportunities in attaining higher education scholarships,” said Michael.
He said there were incidents of land grabbing of minority graveyards and their desecration in densely populated religious minorities constituencies of both Punjab and Sindh.
The forum has also emphasised the need to curb discriminatory practices faced by religious minority patients as well as staff in hospitals to promote an inclusive environment. The NLD has developed a Code of Conduct for display in public hospitals at the federal and provincial levels.