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UK House panel reveals Pak minority women’s pitiable condition

NewsUK House panel reveals Pak minority women’s pitiable condition

The report has shocking details, including estimating at least 1,000 religious minority women (Hindus and Christians) being abducted and forcefully converted.

New Delhi: Friday’s incident of the torture and burning of a Sri Lankan Christian national in Sialkot, Pakistan, by fanatic mob for allegedly indulging in blasphemy has led to a serious concern among the non-Islamic countries having business interest in the country apart from putting in spotlight the condition of minorities in the country.
Just days ago, the United Kingdom’s All-Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Pakistani Minorities released a 67-page report in the public domain that presented the deteriorating human right conditions of the minorities living in the country.
The report has shocking details, including estimating at least 1,000 religious minority women (Hindus and Christians) being abducted and forcefully converted and spending the rest of their lives as “wives” of a man who is already married. In most of the cases, the age of the abducted woman is less than 18 years. The APPG has also recorded instances of girls as young as 12 years being abducted, converted and married off.
Richard James Shannon, Chair, APPG for Pakistani Minorities Chair, APPG for International Freedom of Religion or Belief, in the report has written, “More than 70 years after the country gained its independence, one of the most heart-rending issue its religious minorities face is the abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages of girls and women from their communities. The continuous and steady increase in these cases has made this practice a national and international tragedy. Yet successive governments have failed to take any effective action to prevent this tragic and inhuman practice.”
As per the report, the cases of Christian or Hindu girls between the ages of 12-25, abducted, converted to Islam and immediately married to their abductors have been increasing steadily in recent years in Pakistan. “Provisional estimates in a study ‘Forced Marriages and Forced Conversions in the Christian Community of Pakistan’ suggest that up to 1,000 religious minority women and girls face this fate every year. However, the true numbers may never be ascertained. All these cases meet with impunity. Usually, after the abduction, the victim’s relatives plead with the local police to file a First Information Report (FIR). The police are usually reluctant or fail to investigate the cases properly. Instead, after a few days, the parents are often handed the conversion certificate, as well as the marriage certificate, and told that the girl has voluntarily converted to Islam, married and is living with her new ‘husband’. In court, the issue is often portrayed as a religious issue and the perpetrators’ lawyers appeal to the religious sentiments of judges, by suggesting that the girls have voluntarily converted to Islam. In the majority of these cases, the decisions will go in favour of the perpetrators and the girls lose all contact with their families.”
The report has also highlighted the role played by clerics, judiciary, politicians and even the Urdu media in keeping this “practice” alive. “One reason why this practice is flourishing in the Sindh and Punjab provinces is because of the many actors playing their part in keeping the practice alive. For example, the clerics play a key role in the conversion process and marrying the victims and the perpetrators within a short time after. In the volatile politics of Pakistan any efforts to apprehend any religious leader can be construed as an attack on Islam. For this reason, such practices of the clerics are tolerated by government officials and politicians, as confrontation could bring about further conflict amongst the wider public. The Inquiry revealed that the issue of abductions, forced conversions, and forced marriages of religious minority women and girls is a serious issue for the vulnerable and marginalised Hindu and Christian communities in Pakistan.”
In 2017, Pakistan’s population was 207.7 million of which Hindus constituted about 1.6%, and Christians about 1.59%, of the population. The vast majority of Christian and Hindu women and girls live in Punjab and Sindh. Most are either housewives or work in low jobs such as domestic workers, labourers in brick kilns or agricultural lands, or sometimes as bonded labourers.
“Belonging to religious minority groups, and with lower socio-economic power, these women and girls are particularly vulnerable, and an easy target for abductors for forced conversion and forced marriages from the majority Muslim community,” the report reads.

Case studies
The report has multiple “case studies” that the APPG came across during its inquiry:
Case Study-1: Hema Yohana, a 14-year-old Christian girl, was abducted in October 2019 by a Muslim man named Aslam Jahangir. In court, her parents produced a baptismal certificate and testimony from her school that purported to show she was 14. Regardless, judges observed that marriage between the two would be valid under Sharia law if she had had her first menstrual cycle–and yet under the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act the marriage was clearly illegal.
In this court, the Sindh High Court ruled that, as she has had her first menstrual period, she was of marriageable age according to precedent of the Sharia law.
Case Study-2: Kajal, a 14-year-old Hindu girl, was abducted on her way to tuition on 2 September 2018. Her family, unable to find her, filed the crime at the local police station. The family visited the police station twice on September 3, 2018, but police said the investigation had not yet commenced. With this, police authorities stated that if she had already embraced Islam they would be unable to return her. The next day, police informed Kajal’s family that she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man named Mohsan Asgar. The marriage certificate was shown to them. Kajal’s father, Chandar, argued that the signature on the affidavit did not match his daughter’s, and insisted on a court appearance and reopening of the investigation. He also visited notable figures in the area for help. Nevertheless, due to fear of Islamic clerics, who currently provided the abductor protection, there was a general unwillingness to assist in such cases.
Case study 3: January 2020—A young Hindu woman, Bhavani Bai, was kidnapped from her wedding ceremony—in Sindh—by unknown assailants with the involvement of local police. According to reports, Bhavani Bai was then forcefully converted to Islam by the Jamiat-ul-Uloom and married to a Muslim man named Sheikh Rehman Gulam, who had led the kidnapping.
Case study 4: January 202—A 15-year-old student, Mehar Kohari, was kidnapped and married to a Muslim man, Ahmad Riaz Sonari, in Sindh. In a rare instance, a court later nullified the marriage on grounds of Mehar being underage but did not address the religious aspect of the forcible conversion. Moreover, Mehar was sent to a shelter home, rather than back to her parents. She also received death threats from religious clerics after she rescinded her prior statement saying she willingly accepted Islam.
Case study 5: March 2019—Two sisters Radha and Raksha, both below 16, were kidnapped from their home in Sindh and converted to Islam. The girls were then taken to Punjab province, where they were married to two Muslim men at the headquarters of a religious political party, Sunni Tehreek. After initially disregarding the girls’ family’s complaints, the police registered a formal case and arrested twelve people. The Islamabad High Court, however, eventually ruled against the family and found that the girls were above the legal marriageable age of 16 and that the girls converted to Islam out of their own free will.
Case study 6: August 2019—A Sikh girl, Jaswant Kaur, was abducted by a Muslim man, who was a member of the fundamentalist Jamaat-ud-Dawa organization. After the victim’s brother lodged a complaint with the police, an Islamic mob attacked and vandalized the local Sikh holy site, in January 2020.

Failure of legislative, judiciary, executive and media to address this issue
As per the report, legislative attempts to address this problem too have met with stiff resistance.
“An attempt was made to outlaw forced conversions and forced marriages by presenting the Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Bill. The Protection of the Rights of Religious Minorities Bill contained a series of measures to protect minorities. Among others, it prescribed that hate speech and offensive material against religious minorities must be removed from school textbooks. It prescribed that the government should provide protection and assistance to persons who have been victims of forced conversions, while sentences of up to fourteen years in prison were to be imposed for the kidnappings and forced conversions of minor minority girls. In addition, the Bill regarded marriage between a Muslim man and a minor of another religion as “forced marriage” and therefore considered it “null and void”, providing for penalties against those who organise such marriages. Hate speech and violence against religious minorities carried a three year prison sentence and a fine of 50,000 rupees, while discrimination against religious minorities was deemed a crime punishable up to one year in prison and a pecuniary fine. However, on 2 February 2021, the Senate Standing Committee on Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony rejected it, claiming that it was not needed as minorities enjoy religious freedom in the country.”
“In September 2021, a draft bill to prevent forced conversions was prepared by the Federal Ministry of Human Rights and was sent for consultation. However, the Council of Islamic Ideology and the Ministry of Religious Affairs and Interfaith Harmony, returned it after raising objections to the proposed 18-year age bar on conversions, as well as appearance before a judge prior to conversion, claiming these proposals to be against Islam.”
As per the findings of the report, 20 or more Hindu girls are abducted every month in Pakistan.
“The perpetrators vary in their background and social status, however, they are usually men belonging to the majority Muslim community. In some cases, powerful men groom religious minority women and girls, and there have been cases of opportunism where abductors take advantage of the fact that these girls are often from a poor minority background and serious consequences for abduction and associated abuse are therefore unlikely. This is illustrated by many cases presented to the Inquiry.”
“After a kidnapping, conversion, and forced marriage many girls are coerced by their abductors into making statements against their parents when they are presented in Court. Due to life threats, the girls state that they have come of their wills, such as in recent cases of Hema Yohana and Aqsa Rana of Karachi, Sindh. The victims of forced conversion often take an Islamic name, but at the same time are called such names as ‘‘Chuhri’’ (a derogatory word for low caste and untouchable people). After four or five months, these girls realise the reality behind their kidnapping. But now they cannot think of going home due to guilt, social, and family pressure. After some time, many are disappeared, murdered, or forcefully moved into prostitution. When we challenge abductors about these girls, they have no answer. 90% of girls do not want to disclose their reality because of guilt and disgrace of their family or community. Further, if the victims get pregnant and their new born is not acceptable by the abductor’s family and not acceptable in society, their future is very bleak. If they give birth to a girl, then the situation can be even worse. The victims are treated like slaves and if they managed to return, no one else will marry them. If they refuse to convert in order to marry, they are killed, as happened in the recent cases of Sorya Alam Roshan from Rawalpindi, and Shaima & Abia from Lahore.”
The report had stated that there exists a clear pattern in these cases. “A girl or young woman can be abducted on her way to school or work, or even from her own home. After the abduction, she is immediately taken to a mosque or religious institution to be converted to Islam.”
The report further stated, “The psychological effects of being abused at such an early age are also life changing. This violent and inhumane act deprives the girl of her childhood, and the support systems she had known all her life; her extended family, school and the wider community suddenly disappear. In a completely new environment, unfamiliar with their new religion and rituals, the girls usually feel lonely and isolated.”
“There have been drastic effects in these kinds of cases, not only on the victims and their families, but at the community level as well. Victims and their families suffer from the psychological and emotional trauma of being separated from their loved ones on the pretext of conversion, and later no whereabouts of the girls are shared with the girl’s/ victim’s family.”
“Furthermore, after the abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage, and in cases where the family pursues the matter with the police and the court, the girl is sometimes threatened that her relatives will be harmed if she does not state that she voluntarily left her family home with the abductor. Some of the victims are subjected to threats, intimidation and beatings. As a result, the victims often testify in favour of the abductor. Their families may be approached by the abductors and told to drop their case, also under the threat of harming the girls.”
“In the lower courts, religious lobbyists often crowd the court buildings and intimidate the court, judiciary members and the girl’s family. At the same time, the abductor’s lawyers try to play the “religious card,” and imply that any judgement apart from handing the girl over to her “husband” would be a betrayal of Islam. If the victim is sent to stay with the abductor while the case progresses slowly, the victim again comes under immense pressure to deny that she has been forced or coerced to convert and to state that she married him willingly. Even if the victim is sent to sheltered accommodation for the duration of the court hearing, the victim might still come under pressure from the abductor or others to affirm that she voluntarily converted and married.”
“Another unfortunate aspect of this crime is the breakdown of contact and communication between the victim and her family. The family is not allowed to get in touch with the victim, on the pretext that the parental family is kafir (infidel), even when parents accept their daughter’s new religion and merely want to keep in touch with her: “Once a Hindu woman is converted, there is no going back as it would be considered apostasy by Muslim practitioners and would mean a death sentence. In many cases the converted women are told that their families are ‘kafirs’ and they cannot meet them after becoming Muslims. This impedes their access to justice as they remain in the clutches of powerful men. No one hears from these women directly after they ‘elope’.”

To prove this, the committee mentioned a 12 years old Hindu girl.
“Vinaya, a 12-year-old Hindu girl, was abducted from outside her home in September 2018, in Sindh. When Vinaya’s family and neighbours were unable to find her, they turned to the police. According to Samesh, the father of the victim, the police were not cooperative, due to the family’s religious background. Then, two days later, the police told father that Vinaya had converted to Islam by choice and handed him the certificate of proof. Her family believes that an Islamic religious leader has abducted, raped and forcibly converted her. When the family requested to arrange a meeting with their daughter at the magistrate’s office, Vinaya was absent. Her family has reason to believe that the abductor has killed her. An investigation is being held but no legal action has been initiated.”
“The often derogatory treatment of the victims, their parents and their lawyers by the police and the judiciary further embolden the perpetrators and give them the reassurance they need that they will be granted impunity for their actions.”
The APPG found that the attitude of police officers towards the family of the victim is not only unsympathetic and condescending but sometimes even hostile. The influence of the religious lobby, societal discrimination against minorities and pressure from the influential abductors makes them quasi aiders and abettors of the abductors. This discriminatory attitude of the police towards the victims’ families is consistently confirmed by the families in both Punjab and Sindh.
The justice system does not protect the victims from their abductors. When kidnapped girls are produced before a court, they are still in the custody of their abductors, and often the kidnappers are in the courtroom when the victims deliver their testimonies. Under duress, these girls tend to cave in to the pressure of their abductors and give false statements in court claiming that they willingly converted to Islam and married their captors. This is due to fear that the abductor will exert revenge on the girls themselves or their family members.
Even the local media, particularly the Urdu media, have tended not to highlight these cases, partly out of the misplaced concern that publicising such cases harms the image of the country. Even more worryingly, sometimes they are reported as “romantic love stories”, the report reads.

*All names have been changed by the APPG to protect the identity of the victims.

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