PAKISTAN: Forced marriages and forced conversions in Pakistan and the European Union
HRWF (31.05.2023) – On 8 May, HRWF organized a conference titled “EU-Pakistan: Human rights, religious freedom and the GSP+”, at the Press Club in Brussels. MEP Peter van Dalen who has for years been a staunch defender of human rights in Pakistan could not be present but he sent us a video with a strong message on the issue.
NGO representatives in Belgium, Pakistan, Italy and the US participated in the event addressing a series of serious issues. Jonathan de Leyser, advocacy officer in Brussels at Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW) spoke about forced marriages and forced conversions.
His contribution to the debate comprised three parts:
- An overview of the facts concerning what is happening in Pakistan in this area;
- Local and national responses;
- Some thoughts on EU recommendations, including some comments on the new GSP regulation (2024-2034), which remains under negotiation.
Overview of the facts
On 26 October 2022, six UN Special Rapporteurs, including the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the Working Group on discrimination against women and girls released a common statement from which Jonathan de Leyser excluded qualifying words such as “allegedly” and “reportedly” when he quoted a part of it “because these are all facts that CSW could confirm”:
“The practice of abducting young women and girls who belong to religious minorities and forcing them to marry and convert to Islam against their will is (reportedly) widespread in Pakistan, particularly impacting the Hindu and Christian minorities. Victims are (allegedly) taken from their cities or provinces of origin, and deprived of contact with their families. They are then (allegedly) raped and/or forcibly married and forced to convert to Islam, sometimes under the threat of violence and with the direct involvement of religious clerics.
These women and girls are then (reportedly) forced by their abductors to appear before courts and give testimony and/or sign official documents which attest to their being of age and having married and converted to Islam of their own free will. This coercion (reportedly) takes place under the threat of violence against them or their families. Perpetrators of these offenses (are alleged to) enjoy a significant degree of impunity, enabled in part by the actions of the security forces and the justice system.”
According to data compiled by one of CSW’s local partners in Pakistan, the Centre for Social Justice, 202 incidents were recorded and documented between 2021-2022. Almost all of them took place within the Sindh and Punjab provinces.
Disaggregated by religion, the 202 cases included 120 Hindu women and girls, 80 Christians and 2 Sikhs. The figures show that girls from “low” caste Hindu communities are the most at risk group. Noteworthy is the alarming rise over time, with an uptick of 59% in cases in 2022 from 2021. It is also relevant to disaggregate the cases by age. Of the 202 cases, only 20 were confirmed to be over 18 years old and 133 were at under 18 (including 55 who were under 14 years old). In the remaining 49 cases, the age was unknown or unconfirmed.
Except for the Sindh province, where the legal marriage age is 18, the other provinces maintain legal marriage from the age of 16 (under the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929, stemming from the British Colonial era). This is out of step with international law and with most other countries in South Asia. There are also areas of judicial conflict with some Shari’a interpretations, which insist that marriage is legal for girls who have reached biological puberty.
Killed for refusing forced marriage
Beyond the data, it is also worth highlighting a concrete case that CSW reported on in 2022. A young Hindu woman named Pooja Kumari was 18-years-old, when on 21 March 2022, three men made an intrusion into her home, near the Chhuahra Mandi area of Sukkur in Sindh. One of the men is said to have asked Ms. Kumari to marry him but when she refused, he and the others attempted to abduct her. As she resisted, they shot her.
National response: no will to implement the legislation and to prosecute
Turning now to the national responses to this issue, a number of facts need to be mentioned. In 2017, an amendment was introduced to Pakistan’s Penal Code, under Section 498B, which specifically criminalised forced marriage with a non-Muslim woman – punishable by a fine of 1m rupees, and 5-10 years in prison. But as far as it is known, no investigations have been carried out under this provision.
On paper this amended law should be sufficient to provide legal protection to girls and young women in many cases, but what can be seen is a lack of implementation and a lack of will (including political will) to enforce the Penal Code in such cases. A few examples:
- First of all, public comments and speeches from leaders are problematic. As one example, a seminar organised earlier this year was hosted by Government Minister Mufti Abdul Shakoor, at which individuals who were suspected of having been forcibly converted were invited to explain how their conversions were in fact unforced. Those testimonies were presumably genuine but the event did not platform any other cases. It did not represent a sincere attempt by the government to engage with the issue, but rather to minimise it publicly.
- Secondly, there is a lack of political will in parliament. In 2019 the Federal Government set up a Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions. But in October 2021, the Ministry of Religious Affairs was opposed to a “Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill” and it was rejected by parliament for spurious reasons. Lawmakers from minority communitiesprotested the decision.
- The Government has also shelved reform to the Christian Marriage and Divorce Acts – where encouraging progress had been made under the previous government, spuriously claiming that it was because “the Christian community were not united”. This was not true as the Christian community had reached a consensus on the reform.
Some thoughts for EU recommendations
Firstly, about sanctions. At the end of 2022, the UK government sanctioned Abdul Haq – a cleric responsible for forced conversions and marriages – under its Magnitsky equivalent Global Human Rights Regime. The EU should consider joining this movement.
Secondly, about private diplomacy. CSW has good contacts with the European External Action Service (EEAS) and with the new EU Special Envoy for FoRB. For anyone who has tried to engage with the Pakistan government on human rights issues, they will know that “what about India?” is often a retort. It is a fact that the situation for religious minorities in India is also extremely serious. The FoRB situation in India deserves attention in its own right – but as a by-product, doing so may also help advocacy in Pakistan.
Thirdly, the Generalised System of Preferences (GSP+) is repeatedly questioned by the European Parliament. In exchange of progress in the area of human rights, the EU scheme has been granting for years privileged access (reduced or zero duties) to the EU market to products from Pakistan. These products across approximately 66% of all EU tariff lines enter the EU market with 0% duties but in exchange there is no substantial progress in the implementation of human rights.
On the new incoming regulation for the period 2024-2034, CSW has been doing quite a lot of work.
“We are right now at a critical phase of the negotiations. The new regulation is in the trilogue phase – where the institutions get together to reach a compromise,” Jonathan de Leyser said.
While there are hopes for some improvements on monitoring and transparency, it is unfortunately to be expected that the power of this scheme will be diluted. The Council and the Commission are attempting to add a new conditionality, in the area of migrant returns and readmissions. If this conditionality is added, the negotiating capital that has been available for human rights and other sustainable development purposes will get used up on the migrant issue.
GSP schemes are also regulated by WTO legislation. CSW has commissioned a legal opinion by Dr. Geraldo Vidigal of Uni of Amsterdam which clarifies that while GSP schemes can include conditionalities relevant to sustainable development (including human rights), domestic policy goals like migration are not foreseen therein.
And Jonathan de Leyser concluded by saying “I would encourage anyone working on this file, or anyone with good contacts with the trade ministries of member states to get in touch with us, as there is really a need to turn the Council on this issue.