Forced Religious Conversions, Pakistan, Forced Conversions, Hindu

Under the auspices of broader legal framework(s) both national and international, the responsibility to ensure that no forced conversions occur in the context of or to facilitate a marriage, rests with the government. It is unfortunate however, that Pakistan has not delivered as much in terms of completely fulfilling its obligations under international conventions to protect the rights of vulnerable minorities from forced conversions and in other cases forced conversions leading to (forced) marriages. This ineffective state of deliverance comes in addition to the government’s inability to devise a functional law to obstruct such practice(s) on the national level.

On national (and provincial) levels, the laws proposed to criminalise forced conversions and marriages include; the Pakistan Penal Code 1860, the Criminal Law (Amendment Act) 2016, the Hindu Marriage Act 2017, and the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act 2016. Despite all these institutional legal frameworks, little success has been achieved in terms of curbing or at least minimising the ratio of forced religious conversions within Sindh and elsewhere in the country. Sindh, in this context deserves a distinct mention as the number of conversions in the province has been on a substantial surge in the past decade, with more than twenty cases of conversions reported each year ever since 2007.

As per Chapter XX-A of Pakistan Penal Code 1860, which explicitly deals with Offences Against Women Prohibition of forced marriage, ‘Whoever coerces or in any manner whatsoever compels a woman to enter into marriage shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term, which may extend to seven years or for a term which shall not be less than three years and shall also be liable to fine of five hundred thousand rupees.’

The whole idea of forced religious conversions in Pakistan is deeply intertwined with the menace of child/ under-age marriage. In this context, in addition to the aforesaid, though the provisions under Criminal Law (Amendment Act) have been subject to much debate given their broad scope, there still remains plenty of room of unaddressed ambiguity pertaining to the law. The Criminal Law comes with an additional legal definition of woman including non-Muslim women. The addition of the phrase ‘a non-Muslim woman’ is not just vague and problematic but also adds to the complexity of identifying and dealing with occurrences of forced conversions and marriages, particularly considering cases reported in and around Sindh province. The Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) applies to all children irrespective of their religious backgrounds. Hence, the inclusion of the phrase ‘a non-Muslim woman’ enroots an ambiguity in the case of forced marriages of non-Muslim female children as it has evolved as an organized practice over the years.

The Hindu Marriages Act, 2017 in a similar vein was passed by the National Assembly aiming at a swifter and more controlled framework for formalised registration(s) of Hindu marriages. However, although the law immensely facilitated the Hindu community on the social front, it did not really have any clauses to cover the critical issue of ‘forced’ marriage and/ or conversions. As mentioned earlier, given the concentration of the Hindu minority in interior Sindh and the surging ratio of reported cases of forced conversions, the Sindh government also passed the Sindh Hindu Marriage Act 2016.  The Act was intended to provide a formal process for Hindus, Sikhs and other minority communities to register their marriages. However, it achieved little in terms of halting the upsetting practice of forced conversions and marriages; a continued legacy in legally inadequate practices which seem to never have delivered their purpose.

An inherent ambiguity which surrounds the national legal framework(s) available for dealing with the cases of forced conversions was evidently manifest in the hearing of the Ghotki girls, Reena and Raveena, whereby serious concerns were expressed regarding the inadequacies in the available law. The case hearing which declared that the conversion of both sisters was not in fact forced, rather ‘facilitated’, essentialised the need to further develop a comprehensive framework which surpasses the contextual ambiguities in such cases.

Internationally, Pakistan ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in 1990. The convention set minimum age of marriage as 18 years. In addition, Pakistan is also signatory to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) since 1996.  CEDAW requires its member states to guarantee unrestricted and full agreement to marriage. It is in the Article 16 of CEDAW that the equality of women and men in all matters related to marriage and family, including the right to marry ‘freely and only with full and free consent is reiterated. CEDAW also declares that no legal effect may be given to the betrothal or marriage of a child. During its review in the past few years, the CEDAW Committee expressed serious concerns about the persistence of child marriages and the minimum age of marriage for girls in Pakistan. It also voiced concern about the high number of Pakistani girls belonging to religious minorities who are forced to convert and marry. In addition to CRC and CEDAW, Pakistan is also a member of the South Asian Initiative to End Violence Against Children (SAIEVAC). The SAIEVAC implemented its regional action plan to end child marriage from 2015-2018. Despite an active involvement in the project, the rising figures of reported forced marriages from Pakistan narrate a different story.  Under the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), Pakistan is committed to eliminate early and forced marriages by the year 2030.

International regimes for the protection of human rights and freedom alongside the advocacy groups such as the Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and others of the same league, rank Pakistan as not friendly and not a free country particularly for religious minorities. Needless to say that despite the emphasis on the institutional protection of human rights, little has been achieved on the account of agreements and a good-for-nothing international institutional oversight. This does not imply that the annual reports generated under these international programs/frameworks to examine the status of social cohesion and inclusion bring little or no good. It does however mean, that a renewed system of advocacy, monitoring and evaluation, with adequately wide ranging laws; laws which are broad and comprehensive enough to deal with the overlapping issue(s) of conversions and child marriage shall perhaps add more to the currently stagnant state of societal growth in Sindh.

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