Forced conversions of young minority girls is on the rise in Pakistan

Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Pakistani Christian girl, has become yet another victim of the alleged abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage. The incident has once again brought into spotlight the failure of the Pakistani authorities to rein in growing number of incidents of forced conversions of Christian and Hindu girls.

In April 2020, Maira Shahbaz, a 14-year-old Christian girl from province Punjab of Pakistan, was allegedly abducted and subsequently forced to convert and marry her Muslim captor. She luckily managed to flee her captor’s custody and has since has gone into hiding.

Aid for Church in Need, a leading Catholic charity that works for persecuted Christians in some 130 countries around the world, has launched an online campaign urging UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson to grant asylum to Maira Shahbaz and her family.

A lower court ordered Maira Shahbaz to go to a government-run safe home. However, the Lahore Hight Court overturned the lower court’s verdict allowing Maira Shahbaz to go with the man, who, Maira and her family say, forcibly abducted, raped and married her.

A succession of recent cases of forced conversion involving young minority girls highlights the extent of the victims’ vulnerability, and the helplessness and voicelessness of their families. It also exposes the failure of the state to extend any protection to minority girls.

The Child Marriage Restraint Act of Pakistan provides that girls should have reached the age of 16 before entering marriage. However, this is not strictly enforced in Pakistan as Pakistani courts often lend legal validity to marriages involving minors by explaining marital age in relation to puberty under Islamic law.

When cases involving forced marriages come to courts, they must make sure that the evidence being led by victims has not been obtained under duress. If duress-free witness statements from victims cannot be obtained there is no point of leading them in courts as such statements have no evidentiary value. Legal rules do not allow admissibility of such witness statements in the first place.  Likewise, it beggars belief how Pakistani courts allowed Maria’s alleged husband to admit to the court a questionable birth certificate showing Maira to be a 19-year-old. The church’s birth certificate shows Maira Shahbaz to be of 14 years of age. The admissibility of the questionable documentary evidence, among other things, clearly reduced the judicial exercise to a mockery of justice.

According to a 2014 estimate around 1,000 minority women are forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year. The number of the estimated forced conversions should have raised alarm and prompted successive governments to take concrete measures to stop forced conversions. One would expect a lot more from Prime Minister Imran Khan, who, became prime minister on the slogan of a “Naya Pakistan” or “a new Pakistan.”

Pakistani authorities must make sure that all Pakistani citizens are treated as equal citizens. Rhetoric aimed at delivering equal rights would not do anything to alleviate the increasing mistrust of authorities Pakistani Christians and other minorities have of them.

The Pakistani state should start treating all citizens equally by sending a message loud and clear that it would not allow anyone to play a religion card any longer.

The country’s Christians and other minorities have long suffered at the hands of the hardline religious conservatives. It is about time rulers begin fashioning Pakistan on progressive lines on which it was envisioned by its founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah.