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Tough action sought in Pakistan on child marriage

Demand comes ahead of a Sindh High Court hearing on the alleged abduction, conversion of a Christian schoolgirl

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Tough action sought in Pakistan on child marriage

Christians light candles and pray as they attend a special New Year service at Saint Anthony's Church in Lahore on Jan 1, 2020. Activists and Christians are calling for the strict enforcement of anti-child marriage laws to prevent young girls from religious minorities being abducted, married off and converted to Islam (Photo: Arif Ali/AFP)

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Rights activists and the mother of a 14-year-old Christian girl allegedly abducted and converted to Islam, have called on the Sindh provincial government in Pakistan to enforce a law that outlaws child marriage in the province.

Huma Masih, an eighth-grade student in Karachi, went missing in October last year. A few days later, the girl released a video message on social media, saying she was not kidnapped as feared, but had moved away on her own free will and had married.

But Huma’s family maintains she was kidnapped, manipulated due to her young age and forcibly converted and married off to a Muslim man.

The family has filed a petition in the Sindh High Court, seeking the annulment of the marriage because the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act forbids underage marriage.

The case is scheduled to be heard in the Sindh High Court on Jan. 16.

Rights activists say lackadaisical enforcement of the law has seen forced conversions continue in the province.

Speaking at a press conference in Karachi on Jan. 14 Huma’s mother, Nagina Masih, criticized police for failing to produce the girl in court to record her statement independently.

“Huma called me once in October and started crying before the phone suddenly fell silent. I kept trying to call her back, but the phone was later turned off,” Masih said.

She said three months after Huma disappeared, authorities have failed to locate her. She pleaded the police to find her daughter.

“Why are the government and police not doing anything to recover my girl? Why are they so silent? Will they behave in the same fashion if it was their daughter,” she asked.

Mehnaz Rehman, from women's rights group Aurat Foundation, backed Maish's petition.

“We demand that laws barring child marriages be fully enforced across the province to stamp out this scourge,” she said.

The Islamic cleric, who performed the marriage and the witnesses, should be punished as the bride was underage, the family's lawyer U. Mujahid said.

Zahid Farooq, a human rights activist, wondered why only girls, not boys, convert from religious minority groups to Islam.

According to the Centre for Social Justice, a research and advocacy group, at least 159 cases of forced conversion involving minority girls have been reported in Pakistan since 2013.

In its annual report, the National Commission for Justice and Peace, the human rights arm of the Catholic Church, recorded that incidents of abduction forced conversion of girls from religious
minority communities remained a major concern in Muslim majority Pakistan.

Despite successive demands for legislation against forced conversion, nothing substantial has been done, the report said.

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