Forced conversion of minority girls, a tragic reality. By Nasir Saeed

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Last weekend more than a dozen NGOs protested in front of Pakistan’s Punjab assembly against the ongoing forced conversion of minorities’ girls.

They demanded the government pass a law to stop the forced conversion of minorities’ girls to Islam.

On March 29th Tahira Habib from the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, Joseph Francis from Centre for legal Aid Assistance and Settlement and some other leaders held a joint press conference in Lahore press club over the same issue. They also demanded the government pass legislation to stop the ongoing forced conversion.

In one video on social media Christian Ex-MNA Asiya Nasir also protested and spoke out against the forced conversion of Christian and other minority girls.

On March 26th, a Hindu lawmaker from Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) moved two Bills in Parliament seeking increased punishment for those involved in forced conversion, and for making child marriage a cognizable offence.

All major political parties are raising their concerns and condemning such incident. There is enough evidence for the government to pay attention to this sensitive and serious issue, and assure minorities of its full support, take them into confidence and pass the legislation they are demanding.

Earlier this year the Upper House of Pakistan’s senate approved a draft bill raising the minimum marriage age to 18. The meeting of the Senate Functional Committee on Human Rights unanimously approved the Child Marriage Restraint (Amendment) Bill, 2018.

The Sindh government has already passed the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Bill, 2013, which stipulates strict penalties for all parties that compel underage individuals to marry, while a forced conversion bill which was unanimously adopted by Sindh Assembly was rejected by Governor of Sindh, Saeeduzzaman Siddiqi (late).

One of the two bills submitted by Dr Vankwani seeking protection of minorities called for sensitisation of government officials, police officials and members of judicial service on the issue. It also suggested setting up of specific courts to hear cases of forced conversions and shelter homes for victims.

The bill stated: “Any minor who claims to have changed their religion before attaining maturity shall not be deemed to have changed their religion and no action shall be taken against him or her for any such claim or action made by the minor.”The bill proposes imprisonment for a minimum of five years and a maximum of life, and a fine to be paid to the victim.

It comes amid nationwide outrage over the forced conversion of two underage Hindu sisters Raveen (now Asiya), and Areena (Nadia) form Sindh. Their family and community members in Daharki taluka of Sindh’s Ghotki district staged a sit-in. The court has granted the government custody of both sisters instead of handing them back to their parents, a decision which is against the international standard.

Forcible conversion to Islam in Pakistan in the 21st century is an open challenge for everybody who believes in equality, justice, religious freedom and human rights. There is a pressing need to restore minorities’ faith in the government and the courts. It is a serious issue of survival for minorities in Pakistan and the government must pay attention to stop the continuous violation of the fundamental and human rights of minorities

Sadly, the police are normally inactive and reluctant to register cases where Christian or non-Muslim girls are kidnapped and forcibly converted to Islam, and then married to their Muslim abductor.

This is despite the law clearly stating that if a girl is under 16 and if she is taken away from her legal guardians even through enticement, whether you’ve made her believe she is in love or lured her away any which way, it is considered kidnapping. The law also states a girl under 16 cannot consent to sex.

I don’t remember if anyone has been punished for this crime, but we have examples where courts sometimes override the non-Muslim law and decide a case under Muslim law, like in 2009 when two Christian sisters Saba Younis,13, and her sister, Anila Younis, 10, were abducted. The court let Saba go with her husband and Anila’s custody was given to her parents under the condition they would not change her religion – this is not justice.

The concerns of religious minorities about forced conversion are justified as in the first 3 months of this year, I received more than a dozen of stories of forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls, which are available on the internet, published by social and international media, the actual number could be much higher.

Our national media for some reason seems relucant to publish such news but there is a large amount of such news.

Though minorities have voiced their concern in the past, it has not been with this intensity so let’s see whether this time the government and lawmakers take this matter seriously and pass these two bills.

Let’s not forget that the world is much more concerned about issues like freedom of religion and belief, and they are a priority issue for global politicians, governments, religious leaders and NGOs.

Ignorance will not change the reality, but the government and lawmakers must deal with this growing problem and find a solution. It is also time to change the world’s opinion about us, as Pakistan is considered a hard country for women and minorities and has a reputation for non-seriousness in the international community.

We must realise we are part of an international community and have ratified several international conventions like the Convention on Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) , Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC).Under these two conventions Pakistan has made international-level commitments to protect rights of children and women, International convention on civil and political rights (ICCPR), International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). By ratifying these conventions Pakistan is under obligation to bring its laws in line with them, as it receives several benefits from the international community because of these conventions.

The reality is that the issue of forced conversion has been going on for a long time in Pakistan, but the government is not willing to accept it. The truth is that in recent years forced conversion to Islam of Christian and Hindu girls has risen to an unprecedented level.

Serval reports published by international and the local NGOs are available online. Recently NGO Global Human Rights Defence organised a protest in front of the Dutch Parliament and then in front of the Pakistani Embassy asking for the ongoing forced conversion of minorities’ girls in Pakistan to stop.The international community is equally concerned about the matter and is taking it seriously.

Avoidance is not a solution, so let’s sort this out rather than delaying taking action. The wisdom is in treating it before it becomes an infestation, and further damages Pakistan’s reputation in the international community.

Nationwide protests against the forced conversion of minorities’ girls are attracting attention, but I am not sure whether this cry from the NGOs and the minorities leadership is going to be loud enough to have an impact on the government and to awaken the legislature from its slumber.

As for the international community, it is very concerned about the ongoing situation of the religious minorities in Pakistan. Besides several western governments who have strong relations with Pakistan, the European Parliament (EP), commonwealth and The United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) has raised their concern about minorities’ deteriorating situation.

Unfortunately, we have failed to understand the minorities’ issues and therefore never tried to legislate to resolve them. The recent statement of Minister for Human Rights Dr Shireen Mazari that “legislation was being done to protect rights of minorities, children, women, and other oppressed segments of society” has raised some hopes and I hope it’s true and not just political rhetoric.

Forced conversion of minorities’ girls is becoming common. The practice of forced conversion is well organised and well established, and to seek immunity from the crime, the culprits obtain conversion certificates from local mosques and a simple case of abduction is converted into a religious matter. To defeat justice, such perpetrators make religion a factor, claiming that the converts are not allowed on religious grounds to live with their Christian or Hindu families.

Forcible conversion to Islam in Pakistan in the 21st century is an open challenge for everybody who believes in equality, justice, religious freedom and human rights. There is need to restore minorities’ faith in the government and courts. It is a serious issue of survival for minorities in Pakistan and the government must pay attention to stop the continuous violation of the fundamental and human rights of minorities.

Although Prime Minister Imran Khan has ordered an inquiry, it is not enough as this is a long-standing issue and has to be resolved now, not just to pacify the minorities but for Pakistan’s reputation.

Courtesy: Daily Times

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