Cases of underage girls from religious minorities being married off to Muslim families continued to surface in the country throughout 2019.
A vast majority of the cases were reported from Sindh, with most of the victims belonging to the Hindu community. An estimated 4.5 million Hindus live in Pakistan, majority of them in Sindh.
The latest prominent case of forced conversion in the province came from a Christian family, with 14-year-old Huma Masih having been kidnapped on October 10. The abduction of Huma, an 8th grade student at a private school in Karachi’s Zia Colony, was brought into the limelight last month, with Sindh Governor Imran Ismail taking notice of the case on November 29.
On Dec 1, Huma released a video on social media claiming that she hadn’t been kidnapped, had converted to Islam and got married by her own will. Even taking the statement at face value would mean the case violates the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act, which establishes 18 years as the legal minimum age of marriage.
Legislation against forced conversion was shot down in 2017 despite the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) led Sindh Assembly passing the bill to check forced conversions in November 2016. The proposal that no one under the age of 18 should be legally allowed to convert outraged the Islamist groups.
The Council of Islamic Ideology (CII) dubbed it ‘un-Islamic’, as Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) chief Sirajul Haq pushed PPP Cochairman Asif Ali Zardari to withdraw the bill.
The Hindu Marriage Act was passed in 2017, which in addition to providing regulation of Hindu marriages was also designed to cater to forced marriages and conversions. However, question marks remain over its implementation.
Critics argue that the case of Huma Masih highlights that even the legislation in place cannot be implemented owing to Islamist pressure groups. This has resulted in a growing number of cases of forced conversion in Sindh.
“Many madrassas in interior Sindh are actively involved in undertaking forced marriages. They are given patronage by political parties and influential figures in the province which further render the minorities helpless,” says Dr Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP).
After continued debate over the legislations surrounding forced conversions over the past two years, a bill was once again presented in the Sindh Assembly in October to counter the involvement of certain influencers facilitating the crimes. The PPP rejected it again.
“All communities are affected by violence against women. Victims of rape, child marriages belong to all communities,” Senator Krishna Kumari says.
“Many [cases of forced conversion of Hindu girls’] come under child marriages, for which we have the so Child Marriage Restraint Act is applied. What we are trying to ensure is that the laws in place are implemented while working on the other needed legislations,” she adds.
According to this year’s HRCP report, at least 1,000 girls are forcibly converted to Islam annually, the majority of them being Hindus. The lack of exact data on conversion cases is owing to the fact that a vast majority of the instances aren’t reported.
Before being elected to power Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to prevent forced marriages, maintaining that he had personally received complaints from the Hindu community. Some reports reiterate that in Umerkot district alone 25 forced marriages take place every month.
While these cases largely devoid of mainstream media coverage, it is the local media that manages to highlight some of the more prominent incidents. Sindhi publication Daily Ibrat extensively reported on 50 of the cases last year.
Similarly, critics argue, much of the noise generated against the practice is usually covered by the international media.
“Most of the [religious] minorities’ issues are highlighted by international media, only after which does the mainstream media in Pakistan cover it,” says Peter Jacob, the Executive Director at Centre for Social Justice (CSJ).
On November 21, a joint parliamentary committee was formed, led by the Senate chairman and National Assembly speaker, to take action against forced conversations. The committee features 22 parliamentarians including eight Hindu and Christian lawmakers.
“Hopefully, this will result in an increase in security and protection of life and liberty for the religious minorities in the country,” says Jacob.