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Tuesday June 25, 2024

Abuse with impunity

The OHCHR highlighted at least seven instances of abduction and forced marriages

By Editorial Board
April 13, 2024
This picture shows a groom holding his brides hand. — AFP/File
This picture shows a groom holding his bride's hand. — AFP/File

Instances of abduction, forced and/or underage marriages, and conversions often go hand-in-hand when it comes to women who belong to religious minorities in Pakistan. Such cases are still not too infrequent in the country while UN experts have expressed their dismay at the continuing lack of protection for women belonging to minority communities in a statement issued by the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (OHCHR) on Thursday. The OHCHR statement also highlights the impunity the perpetrators of these crimes continue to enjoy and the dismissive attitude of the police towards such cases and victims in many instances. Whether this lack of protection is more or less severe than in years past remains unclear since records of such crimes are not very extensive and many cases go unreported. That being said, in a communique made public in October 2022, the OHCHR highlighted at least seven instances of abduction and forced marriage and conversion targeting women belonging to the Christian and Hindu communities dating back to January 2019, with the youngest victims aged just 13 years. Meanwhile, other reports from activists claim that as many as 100 cases of abduction and forced conversion and marriage of girls and women belonging to the Christian community took place between January 2019 and October 2022.

Take, for example, the case of Chashman Kanwal, a 13-year-old girl from a Roman Catholic family, abducted from Faisalabad in July 2021 and forced to convert and marry a Muslim man. It is illegal for girls to be married under the age of 16 in Pakistan and the kidnapping and coercion of women and girls into marriage is also illegal under Section 365-B of the penal code, which should make the recovery of girls and the punishment of the perpetrators in such cases a straightforward legal matter. However, Chasman’s father, who is reportedly illiterate, was apparently compelled by the police to sign a blank piece of paper which was later used to record his daughter’s age as 17 in the initial complaint. Despite being able to prove that this was not the case later on, through official documents and a medical examination, the courts would apparently go on to uphold this false record.

Sadly, even basic things like age are often hard to prove in Pakistan and when it comes to coercion courts will seemingly accept a statement from a victim claiming she has married of her own free will, at least in some cases, even when she is under the control of her abductors and might be subject to threats, throwing the veracity of these statements into doubt. The births of an estimated 58 per cent of Pakistani children under the age of five are unregistered and minority communities are more likely to suffer from this problem given their socioeconomic marginalization.

This also makes it harder to get favourable results in a legal system that tends to favour wealth and power and easier to be manipulated by the ill-intentioned, as Chasman’s case shows. More shockingly, the case illustrates how, in certain instances of forced marriages and abductions, the authorities appear to favour the accused from the start and use gaps in legislation and laws or the lack of awareness of the victims to stack the odds against them. While more specific and forceful legislation surrounding forced conversions and marriages are certainly part of the solution this is clearly a socio-cultural problem and not a legal one. A system administered by those sympathetic or dismissive of the abuse and marginalization of minority communities will find ways to turn it against them. And it is this that really needs to be dealt with.