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Pakistan

Pakistan urged to act against forced conversions, marriage

Children's body urges new law to protect the rights of young girls, especially from minority religions

Zahid Hussain, Islamabad

Zahid Hussain, Islamabad

Updated: December 08, 2020 10:17 AM GMT
Pakistan urged to act against forced conversions, marriage

Christians protest about the child bride case involving Catholic teenager Arzoo Raja. (Photo supplied)

 

A state agency tasked with safeguarding children's rights in Pakistan has called on the government to introduce a new law to end forced conversions, particularly of young non-Muslim girls.

Pakistan's National Commission on the Rights of Child issued a policy brief on Dec. 7, stressing the need for a new law to curb increasing incidents of abduction, conversion, and forced marriage of Hindu and Christian girls.

Its chairwoman, Afshan Tehseen, said the policy brief came after analyzing the case of Arzoo Masih, a 13 years old Catholic girl. 

Masih was kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam, and married off to a 44-year-old Muslim man in the southern port city of Karachi in October. After establishing that she was below the legal age to marry, Masih was moved to a government shelter.

"The issues affecting religious minorities have been given considerable attention by the media which has been quick to highlight cases of forced conversions in the past … the Arzoo case has revitalized the debate for political parties, policymakers, relevant stakeholders and society at large," the document noted. 
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The policy brief said Pakistan is duty-bound to protect all its citizens' rights, including members of various religious faiths. Child abuse cases in the country reported internationally have placed Pakistan's government "in a very fragile position," said the brief sent to the heads of all federal and state governments and the judiciary.

The commission wants the government to remove inconsistencies in laws banning child marriage and various other legislation, including laws on marriage in general and conversion.

It also called for strict enforcement of existing laws in cases of forced conversions, child marriages, and violation of child rights. "Necessary instructions are to be given to the judges and magistrates of the district judiciary to follow the procedure meant for the disposal of such cases," it said.

Civil society organizations and media were urged to avoid the hype around the issue and not reveal the identity of victims and their families.

Bias against minorities

Police are reluctant to register forced conversion cases; even if registered, they do it without incorporating the proper sections of laws. They also often fail to investigate forced conversions because of their bias, the children's rights commission said in the policy brief.

The bias stems from general intolerance and hatred spread in communities against minorities.

The brief called for police to be trained and sensitized on the issue of forced conversions and the creation of awareness on equal rights of minorities as enshrined in Pakistan's Constitution.

Courts also come under immense pressure when dealing with such cases. When a girl is taken to court to testify about her conversion, the courtroom is packed with people chanting slogans in favor of such conversions.

This intimidates the girls who become reluctant to testify and puts pressure on the judges and lawyers who may also come under immense pressure from religious extremists, the policy brief said.

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