UN experts in Geneva have expressed concern at the reported rise in abductions, conversions, and forced marriages of underage girls and young women from religious minorities in Pakistan and have called for immediate efforts to curtail such practices and ensure justice for victims. The government of Pakistan needs to take these concerns seriously. It is unfortunate that, despite the existence of domestic legislation in this regard and Pakistan being a signatory to international human rights commitments, perpetrators still manage to get away with their crimes. Successive governments have failed to hold accountable those involved in abductions that result in conversions and marriages.
The UN considers such abductions, conversions, and marriages as contemporary forms of slavery. Many of the girls who are ‘married’ are underage or below the age of consent. In a large number of cases, these girls often belong to minority religious communities. Not unrelated to this is the issue of violence against girls and women who are not even allowed to go back to their parents and end up changing hands or become victims of trafficking in persons.
When girls as young as 13 are persuaded to leave their homes or if they leave their homes at will, this in law is not very different from abducting a child as they are taken away from their families by force or by persuasion. They end up marrying men much older to them – sometimes even twice their age – and become victims of coercion which is a violation of international human rights law. In some cases, the threat of violence is also there if the girl wants to go back to her parents who find themselves helpless and without protection in an increasingly intolerant society. Here access to justice also becomes a major issue as Pakistan still lacks adequate legislation and prosecution to prohibit forced conversions, making religious minority communities vulnerable and weak against the abductors of their daughters and young women. Pakistan needs to improve access to justice for victims and their families. Our justice system, religious authorities, and law enforcement all need to realize the seriousness of this issue and work together to protect minorities from forced conversions and forced marriages.