The pandemic of forced conversion

The issue of forced conversion is stalking the streets of Pakistan with shelves of evidence to suggest that girls belonging to minorities are haunted by the death of their human rights and torn apart by a sense of rage and trauma in their beloved country.

I am not a stranger to the issue of forced conversion and forced marriages. My cousin was only thirteen when she was forcefully converted and married to her abductor. I still think of her, she didn’t get a chance to tick off a list of her ambitions and was badly failed by the system. So determined were the government and police to absent themselves from this profound social emergency. An emergency which is tipping off minority girls into premature graves of torment, suffering, and grief.

According to Human Rights groups, around 1,000 girls are forcefully converted and married in Pakistan every year. The vast majority of victims are minors, with numerous cases as young as 12 years old.

The case of 15-year-old Saba is a classic example of how the perpetrators benefit from the climate of impunity to kidnap minors for forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan. She was forcefully converted and married to her abductor last year. Despite several protests, complaints, and appeals, she is still waiting for justice.

On 14 July 2022, the International Federation for Human Rights and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan revealed how fundamentally fragile Pakistan’s human rights are in their joint submission for Pakistan’s fourth Universal Periodic Review (UPR) which is taking place in 2023.

The chaotic revelation of the submission signals that justice is not truly seen to be done. As a result, there is a left-out generation of religious minorities who may never recover from the scars. It is hard to imagine how minority communities have been subject to multiple strands of marginality due to the Pakistani government’s inability to promote and protect human rights. In a nutshell, the government of Pakistan has failed to stop the rot.

The UPR submission shows the notification that established the National Commission for Minorities had serious flaws and no statutory powers. Secondly, the impact of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws on freedom of expression has become increasingly evident as more cases have been filed against members of minority communities.

Given all that, Pakistan received 289 recommendations, of which the government accepted 168, did not accept 117, and rejected four during the previous UPR cycle. Many of the recommendations accepted by the government have not been implemented or have only been partially implemented. Pakistan cannot afford to ignore these recommendations.

According to Human Rights Watch, the problem of forced marriages of minority girls in a society that is already riddled with discrimination and persecution highlights how Pakistani authorities have failed to provide adequate protection or hold perpetrators to account.

Nevertheless, the phrase “forced conversion” conjures an image of a fractured justice system and an ocean of impunity. In many cases, families endure economic pains, often banished from their society because marrying to Muslims is considered a pious act even if it is done by force. Some of the victims and their parents will flee their homes due to security concerns and fear not only from perpetrators but also of authorities who condone this act.

Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, a religious cleric and Chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council has campaigned against the vicious cycle of forced conversion and marriages and said there is no space for forced conversion in Islam.

Those who have lived through this nightmare are sharing stories about how their daughters were forcefully converted and married to their abductors. I know many parents who go to sleep every night praying that their daughters will be free one day from the shackles of the dark world.

Today, the question of fundamental rights in Pakistan has come into global focus after UK Parliament, the International Human Rights organisation, and the US Department of State expressed serious concern over the condition of minority rights.

But instead of finding a bold stance and moral vision, the state legislators of Pakistan have rejected the Anti-Forced Conversion Bill 2020, which has only provided ammunition to the crisis. It is a fragile strategy, full of potential pitfalls, in particular for such a key human right issue as forced marriage.

Traditionally, this style of political discourse has played an instrumental role in the destruction of the rights of faith communities in Pakistan. Whichever new government emerges, the current situation makes it unlikely that we will see a significant enough change in the country’s politics to formulate an Anti-Forced Conversion Bill any time soon.

Over the years, forced conversion and forced marriages through criminal means continue to thrive under the noses of religious establishments that solemnise the marriages without confirming the age or nature of the conversion. In addition, police often provide impunity to perpetrators by refusing to register a First Information Report (FIR) and sabotaging the investigations.

If you want the truth about how the ventures of forced conversion operate in Pakistan, then ditch the constitutional guarantees and parliamentary inquiries and head to the victims of forced conversion. You will find mourning parents suffering in silence with intense loneliness, mental health problems, and sleepless nights which sometimes include hospitalisations and emotional numbness. You will find the victims burdened with the trauma of forced conversion and the pain of covering huge legal costs, and socio-religious hostilities. And you will find the dogged persistence of the constitutional guarantees which have failed to reboot uniform policies both on paper and in practice to end the brutality toward minority girls.

Once in conversation, Rt. Rev. Samson Shukardin, Bishop of Hyderabad, said he has become a witness to the worst human rights abuses against minorities in Pakistan. Unfortunately, the perpetrators of such heinous crimes are beyond anyone’s reach and are never punished.

Many people say that with the heavy rains and devastating floods, Pakistan has entered into a fresh era of forced conversion and marriages. Everyone in Pakistan is going through a hard time after the floods, but minorities are suffering the most.

Marginalised minorities are now facing major challenges to access humanitarian assistance and relief. And there is a growing body of evidence showing that girls from religious minorities are increasingly at risk of sexual abuse, forced marriage, and harassment.

The legislators who rejected the Anti-Forced Conversion Bill have explicitly declared war on impoverished minority girls of Pakistan. Our daughters have inherited a country where the state has turned a blind eye towards the pandemic of forced conversion and marriage.

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