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Govt urged to end forced conversions, underage marriages

By Our Correspondent
February 15, 2023

Human rights activists have urged the government to implement the constitutional guarantees of articles 20 and 25, and most importantly Article 36, which guarantees and ensures the protection of the rights of the religious minorities.

They were addressing a session on ‘Prohibition of Child Marriages for the Protection of Minority Minors’ organised by the National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP) at the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday.

The panellists included Sindh Human Rights Commission Chairperson Justice (retd) Majida Razvi, Aurat Foundation Resident Director Mahnaz Rahman, Advocate Sara Malkani, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan Sindh Vice-Chairperson Qazi Khizar, minority rights activist Zahid Farooq, All Pakistan Hindu Panchayat General Secretary Ravi Dawani and the NCJP’s Reverend Father Asher Liaquat.

Discussing the issues of forced conversions and marriages of underage girls belonging to minority communities, the speakers said provincial and federal governments should acknowledge the prevalence of abductions, forced religious conversions and underage marriages, and move towards legislation and implementation to curb these prevailing issues.

They said that every year a number of minor girls and women belonging to the Hindu and Christian communities are becoming victims of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages, particularly in Sindh and Punjab.

They added that after the 18th amendment to the constitution, the provinces are independent and autonomous in terms of legislation, so every province can have its own law to criminalise forced conversions and set the age of marriage, setting a precedent for other provinces and the Centre.

The speakers said that forced conversions and underage marriages are severe forms of gender-based violence because they have long-term impacts on the psychosocial and physical well-being of minor girls. They recommended that the definition of forced conversion be added to the legal framework of the state for strict legislation on the issue.

They demanded fixing 18 years as the legally valid age for marriage for both boys and girls across Pakistan through an amendment to the Child Marriages Restraint Act 1929. They said that a senior civil judge should ascertain the presence of free will and consent, and the factual accuracy of the age and marital status of both parties.

There is a need to criminalise marriage without CNIC, while the child registration certificate should be considered an undisputed document when determining the age of a minor, they added.

They demanded that the bills presented in the parliament proceed with due deliberations, and that all the pending pieces of legislation regarding forced conversions and forced marriages be processed on a priority basis.

They said police officers should be trained on having unbiased behaviour and conducting unbiased investigations in such matters. The custody of an abducted and converted victim should be given to the family or legal guardian, they added.