Pakistan’s track record of abductions and forced marriages of minor girls belonging to minority groups is no secret. But, a society can reflect on its self only if it wishes to
On October 19, Senator Anwar Ul Haq Kakar made a surprising statement suggesting that the faith conversions of minority girls were not forced but willful marriages. Dilating on the subject he further stated that the conversions were occurring due to economic factors.
This remark astonished the informed sections as it was made in a speech at the National Press Club, Islamabad, in the presence of some prominent minority leaders. It appeared to be the official position of the senator who is chairperson of the parliamentary committee, constituted a year ago to “protect minorities from forced conversions”. The assertion was shocking also because it came a week after the senator’s visit to Sindh province. Nevertheless, the ace surprise was that the senator did not offer any data or analysis to substantiate his assertion.
Within days, there were cases in Karachi and Faisalabad that exposed the criminality involved in the conversion and marriage of Christian girls, earlier claimed to have contracted freewill marriages. In fact, the Lahore High Court and a district court in Jacobabad had already found illegalities in a few cases during 2017 and 2019 and had given relief to the victims. Surprisingly, the honourable senator was not aware of these developments.
For long, an official denial of facts closely linked to the culture of secrecy and lack of transparency has only protected crimes and systemic violations that form a chain with forced conversions. On the other hand, a sad picture of Pakistan is painted by recurring grave human rights violations. The state of affairs could have changed if the government had benefited from the observations given by the human rights monitoring bodies at the United Nations.
On March 27, 2013, after reviewing Pakistan’s 4th periodic report about its progress on implementation of CEDAW treaty which Pakistan had ratified in 1996, the UN Committee on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) issued its concluding observations and recommendations.
In Para 37 of the document CEDAW/C/PAK/CO/4, the committee wrote: “It (Committee) is concerned about the persistence of child and forced marriages and at the fact that the minimum age of marriage for girls is 16. It is deeply concerned about the abduction of women and girls belonging to religious minorities for the purpose of forced conversion and forced marriages.”
In Para 38 the committee recommended to the government: “To conduct research on the extent of the phenomenon of abduction of girls for the purposes of forced conversion and forced marriages and develop a comprehensive strategy to address this phenomenon to ensure the effective investigation of cases, prosecutions and punishment of perpetrators as well as the provision of remedies and support services for victims.”
24 years after signing the CEDAW treaty and 13 years after the above-mentioned recommendation, the committee had to pass similar but more direct observations. On March 10, 2020, the committee observed in Para 47 (CEDAW/C/PAK/Co/5): “The committee notes with concern: (a) The persistence of discriminatory stereotypes faced by women and girls belonging to ethnic, minority groups, in particular Ahmadi, Christian, Dalit, Hindu, Roma, scheduled caste, Sheedi and Sikh women and girls, who are sometimes the victims of abduction and forced conversion.”
As part of the universal periodic weview (UPR) at the UN Human Rights Council in November 2017, Pakistan’s compliance on human rights was assessed in an interactive dialogue during the third cycle at Geneva. Pakistan ‘noted’ but did not ‘support’ the recommendations made by four countries about curbing the forced conversions. In the world of diplomacy, it meant a half-hearted commitment, at best.
Following the UPR, His Excellency, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, the UN high commissioner for human rights, wrote a letter to the foreign minister of Pakistan on April 13, 2018. Among recommendations for improvement of the human rights situation attached with h is letter, he mentioned forced conversions together with religious freedom. It was pertinent because religious freedom cannot be separated from freedom of conscience, which appears to be at stake in the context of questionable, manipulated, unethical and forced conversions.
Recently, the Parliamentary Committee on Protection of Minorities from Forced Conversions has shifted the burden of interpreting the concept of forced conversions to the Council of Islamic Ideology. It is yet another misstep because the Council has neither the representation of minorities nor a mandate. It will rely on interpretations from a dogmatic source which may not be an apt solution to deal with the complex issue.
On the other hand, developments at home and abroad suggest that the chairperson and the 22 respected members of the committee can use available evidence to use for a deeper investigation into the issue. Moreover, the committee is only one of the several human rights bodies therefore seeking help and strengthening all institutions would be extremely important. Credible civil society organisations have collected and analyzed data which can be used to find the truth and resolve the problems related to human rights and democratic governance.
Given the booming communication s, there is a mirror on each side. A society can view its true image if it so wishes. Ugly patches can be changed by persevering efforts and courage to face the truth. Breaking the mirrors or closing the eyes will not alter the ugly truth.
The writer is a researcher in human rights, public policy and law and a freelance columnist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org