Kamran Chaudhry, Karachi
Updated: October 24, 2018 10:05 AM GMT
Dewi Kishore (middle) with her Caritas certificate at St. Paul's Church in Karachi. (Photo by Kamran Chaudhry)
Dewi Kishore's family used to discuss the plight of Hindu parents who took refuge near their locality following forced conversions to Islam and marriages of their teenage daughters.
Twenty-eight-year-old Kishore, who is also Hindu, told ucanews.com that some had wanted to raise their voices against what had happened, but feared being attacked by Muslim in-laws.
She said Hindu girls made to convert to Islam often preferred to stay at home until the day of their weddings.
"They generally wear burqas [Islamic coverings] and use Muslim names in public," she said.
With a population of around seven million, Hindus form the largest religious minority in Pakistan.
Most of them live in Sindh province in the southeast of the majority-Islamic nation bordering with overwhelmingly Hindu India.
While forced conversions and marriages are a major concern, Mansha Noor, Executive Secretary of Caritas Pakistan in the province's city of Karachi, notes also that many families of minority religions, including Christians, voluntarily prefer to marry-off their daughters at a young age.
"They are considered the property of others; the parents never think of their career," he said.
Caritas runs a training program in cosmopolitan Karachi for minority community girls who could be vulnerable to forced conversions and early marriages, or simply married off at a young age by their parents primarily for financial reasons.
Kishore, who dropped out of school in the eighth grade, is one of 30 girls, most of them also Hindus, who recently graduated from the Caritas skills development center.
A graduation ceremony was held following a Sept. 30 Mass at St. Paul's Church.
For most of the girls in her batch, it was their first visit to a church in what is Pakistan's most populous city.
Since 2013, Caritas in Karachi has trained 520 Christian and Hindu women in skills such as fashion designing and sewing — as well as the making of scarves, purses, jewellery, candles and soap — to help them set up their own businesses or obtain factory work.
According to the Human Rights' Commission of Pakistan, forced conversions of young women belonging to low castes remains a significant concern.
Their perceived association with rival India has made life for them tougher than for other religious minorities.
In 2016, the provincial assembly of Sindh became the first in Pakistan to propose legislation to stop forced religious conversion of people under 18, but it was withdrawn in the face of protests by conservative Islamic groups.
The Catholic Bishops' National Commission for Justice and Peace claims that about a thousand Christian and Hindu minority women were converted to Islam and then forcibly married off in 2016, in some cases to their abductors or rapists.
Many Hindus have been forced to migrate to other countries, particularly India, because of kidnappings and forced conversions of teenage girls, abductions of Hindu traders for ransom and the desecration of temples.
Despite being the first Muslim country to elect a woman, Benazir Bhutto, as its leader, Pakistan largely remains a deeply patriarchal society where women must struggle for equal rights.
School textbooks commonly depict girls and women in domestic roles.
Church activists say minority women are regarded as 'fourth grade' citizens and remain the most vulnerable.
Pakistani textbooks published after a 2006 curriculum reform still emphasize wars with India and perpetuate a narrative of conflict and historic grievances between Muslims and Hindus.
According to Professor Arfana Mallah of the University of Sindh, religious fundamentalism increased in Sindh following 2008 Islamic terrorist attacks in India's commercial hub, Mumbai.
More than 40,000 madrassa Islamic seminaries had been constructed in the province since then and the international terror group Islamic State had radicalized many tertiary students, she said.
"Somehow these fundamentalists only find young women as suitable candidates for conversion to Islam," she added.
Meanwhile, Kishore may be far removed from the geo-politics driving the India-Pakistan conflict and international tensions related to religion.
But she knows her life changed when a Caritas team a few months ago accompanied her, and another Hindu alumnus from the skills development center, for an interview at a garment factory.
Her parents had trusted Caritas and permitted her to join its training center.
Now she earns 16,000 rupees (US$120) every month and feels more confident when dealing with people of other religions.
Kishore is pleased that new Prime Minister Imran Khan has appointed Hindu politicians to important ministries and reserved seats for minorities in national and provincial assemblies.
But she believes that attitudes damaging to religious minorities need to change at a grassroots level.
And many girls who are made to marry at a very young age, by outsiders of a different religion or by their own families, would agree with that sentiment.