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Forced conversion and marriages ‘on the rise’ in Pakistan, report finds

03 December 2021

APPG reports on risk for minority-religion women in Pakistan

Alamy

Members of the Sindh Women Protection Centre demonstrate on National Women’s Day, in Hyderabad, in February

Members of the Sindh Women Protection Centre demonstrate on National Women’s Day, in Hyderabad, in February

THERE is a “continuous and steady increase” of abductions, forced conversions, and forced marriages of girls and women from Pakistan’s minority religions, a new parliamentary report has found.

A report by the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities cited academic research that estimated that up to 1000 religious-minority women and girls a year “face this fate”, described as “a national and international tragedy”.

The report, published on Thursday of last week, found that the practice “is flourishing” in the Sindh and Punjab provinces, owing to factors including many non-Muslim families poverty and an unwillingness among police, government officials, and politicians to challenge the religious authorities that oversee conversions and conduct marriages. “In the volatile politics of Pakistan any efforts to apprehend any religious leader can be construed as an attack on Islam,” it says.

The report quotes Professor Anjum James Paul, who chairs the Pakistan Minorities Teachers’ Association; he said that some men used religion to legitimise their crime. “The thought that they are adding a new convert to Islam alone can give them immunity in the eyes of religious leaders and scholars as well as ordinary citizens, and sometimes influences the police and the judiciary as well,” he told the researchers.

The Centre for Legal Aid and Assistance told the researchers that if the abduction was brought to court, abductees could be put under pressure to testify against their families and take an Islamic name. “After some time, many are disappeared, murdered, or forcefully moved into prostitution.” Any who escaped could face “disgrace of their family or community”.

Forced marriage is illegal in Pakistan, but forced conversion is not. The report calls on the age at which women may be married to be standardised at 18 across the country, to avoid abducted girls’ being moved to Punjab, where it is 16. It also calls for the end of the traditional practice of marrying girls off when they reach puberty, which has affected “girls as young as 8 or 9”. It calls on the UK, in its aid to Pakistan, to prioritise the education of girls from religious minorities, and to help the Pakistani government to develop a database to record abductions, forced conversions, and forced marriages.

At the same time, a Roman Catholic charity has found that the incidence of abduction, rape, forced conversion, and forced marriage among women from religious minorities is increasing “in a growing number of countries”.

The charity Aid to the Church in Need launched its report Hear Her Cries online last week, focusing on Pakistan and Egypt — which are often criticised for their record on religious freedom — and Nigeria, Mozambique, Syria, and Iraq, where the are or have recently been jihadist insurgencies.

The charity suggests that often in these countries “Christian women are targeted most by militants. According to the Christian Association of Nigeria [ACN], Christians make up 95 per cent of women and girls being held by Islamist extremists.”

One of the report’s co-authors, John Pontifex of ACN, said that the scale of abduction, rape, forced conversion, and forced marriage could be described as a “human-rights catastrophe”.

Professor Michele Clarke of the University of Nottingham, who has carried out research among Coptic Orthodox Christians in Egypt, told the online launch that she believed that the abductions were part of “strategic, targeted efforts to erode Christian minority communities by attacking women” through the use of “force, fraud and coercion”.

“The abductions are well planned and take place in broad daylight,” she said. They often involved a large vehicle that paused along a girl’s route to school or market long enough for her to be bundled in. Sometimes, girls were tricked into a romantic relationship “by a predator, which is a recognised form of recruitment in human trafficking”.

She noted an increase in abductions of young mothers with children. “Once the mother was converted to Islam, the children were automatically considered to be Muslim.”

Professor Clarke, however, said that Egyptian human-rights lawyers had reported an increase in the number of women petitioning the government to have their Christian religion reinstated on their identity documents.

In addition, families of abducted women were increasingly presenting police with digital evidence of their whereabouts, such as photos, footage, SIM-card locators, and phone-call logs, she said; but this was too often dismissed.

The UK Government’s Special Envoy for Freedom of Religion or Belief (FoRB), Fiona Bruce, noted that the Foreign Secretary, Liz Truss, would host a ministerial conference on FoRB in London next July, and mentioned the campaign that Ms Truss launched last month “to shatter the culture of impunity” surrounding sexual violence in conflict. Mrs Bruce said that she would pass ACN’s report to both Ms Truss and the Home Secretary, Priti Patel.

Hear Her Cries is one several reports in recent years that have explored ways in which women suffer religious persecution differently from men.

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