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Pakistan Reader# 526, 19 January 2023

UN experts distressed about cases of forced marriages in Pakistan: Four Takeaways



Persistent misinterpretation by the courts and impunity of perpetrators are some of the reasons why forced marriages continue in Pakistan

Bhoomika Sesharaj

On 16 January, UN Human Rights  Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) experts expressed serious concern at the rise in forced marriages, abductions and conversions of minor girls and young women from religious minorities in Pakistan and urged the authorities to address the issue to resist such practices and assure justice for victims. The experts asked the government to “take immediate steps” to put a stop to and “thoroughly” investigate these practices through an objective lens and said that the perpetrators must be held “fully accountable.”

The experts held that they were “deeply troubled” to oversee girls as young as 13 years being abducted from their families and trafficked to unknown locations and forced to marry men twice their age and “coerced” to convert to Islam. They said that these practices were in violation of international human rights law and that they were “concerned” about forced marriages and the threats that came with them.

1. Persistent misinterpretation by the courts in Pakistan
Following Pakistan’s preceding efforts to pass legislation that would lead to the prohibition of forced conversions and protect religious minorities in the country, the UN experts denounced the current absence of access to justice for the victims and their families. They said that these acts took place with the complicity of the security forces and justice system. Responding to the experts, Pakistan’s federal minister for human rights, Riaz Hussain Parzada held that the government is “doing its best” to protect the human rights of the minorities and that even though Pakistan’s courts are “cognisant” of the situation, they are focussing on implementing security framework more securely. The Pakistan Hindu Council, a representative body of Hindus in Pakistan, said that while the number of cases is “not as huge” as it is made to be, the government is passive about the matter and has not shown “willingness” to initiate legislation. 

Other advocacy groups condemned the Pakistani government of “outright denial” of the issue and laid that religion is the chronic cover for forced and child marriages in the country. Their objection meant that children in the country hesitated to admit to consensual or forced conversions and would ultimately lose their chances of being represented in courts. Minister Pirzada said that these reports are a part of a “nefarious agenda” by Pakistan’s “enemies” and that their purpose is to “malign” the country. 

2. Impunity of perpetrators
On 12 December 2022, the World Sindhi Congress expressed appreciation for the UK government for laying sanctions on Mian Mithu, who has been continuously involved with the forced conversions of Sindhi Hindu girls in Sindh and was among the list of 30 entities that were sanctioned by the country. In 2019, Mian Mithu claimed that he had “nothing” to do with the “alleged” blasphemy complaint against him and said that “men, women, girls and boys whether they belong to the Hindu community or any other community come to us to change their religion out of their own choice.” The situation has not changed much since Mian Mithu’s claims, with forced marriages and conversion cases holding its perpetrators away from the court’s scrutiny. The perpetrators in the country enjoy significant impunity and are partially enabled by the passivity of the justice system. This comes as the experts said that the police in some cases have “convinced” family members to sign documents attesting to their children being of age or informing families that they have no jurisdiction to intervene in the matter. 

3. Continuing practices
According to the Pakistan Demographic Health Survey (PDHS), in 2018, 28 per cent of women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 experienced “some form of violence.” Though the survey is massively understated with many cases of violence being unreported, data on the violence and conversions of minority women is widely disaggregated. According to the Centre for Social Justice, in 2022 alone, nearly 46 minor girls were abducted and forcibly converted, which included 33 in Sindh, 12 in Punjab, and one girl in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa as compared to the 27 cases from Sindh every previous year. Analysts said that these numbers have since then increased, with the forced marriage law being unsuccessfully penalized in the Sindh Assembly. 

A primary reason why the practices still continue is that all political parties in the country have made manifesto pledges towards protecting and enhancing women and minority rights in the country in varying degrees but have been afflicted by their own political uncertainties and vision to improve the conditions of those suffering constantly. The most distressing part about the matter is how organized religious extremist groups in the country, who are often responsible for the abduction and forced conversion of girls have nearly dominated the political scene when it comes to attaching a narrative to these issues.

References
Pakistan: UN experts urge action on coerced religious conversions, forced and child marriage,” United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner, 16 January 2023
Benazir Jatoi, “Her name was Daya Bheel,” The News International, 19 January 2023
Forced Conversions and Marriages in Pakistan,” Pakistan Reader, 16 June 2020
Pakistan urged to act against forced child marriages, conversions,” Al Jazeera, 18 January 2023

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