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PAKISTAN: Forced marriages and forced conversions, and the European Union

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:


  1. 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.


  1. 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.



  1. 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.


Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website

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PAKISTAN: MEPs on official visit in Islamabad: Interview of MEP Tomáš Zdechovsky

MEPs on official visit in Islamabad: Interview of MEP Tomáš Zdechovsky

First published by The European Times:

PAKISTAN: MEPs visit in Islamabad: Interview of MEP Tomáš Zdechovsky

By Willy Fautré, Human Rights Without Frontiers

HRWF (17.11.2021) – On 10 February 2021, MEP Peter Van Dalen, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and co-chair of the Intergroup on Freedom of Religion or Belief addressed a written question to Josep Borrell about the privileged GSP+ status granted to Pakistan and still in force despite its egregious human rights violations.


On 29 April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution to express its deep concern about the overuse of blasphemy laws and the security religious minorities in Pakistan.


In the last few months, a number of NGOs in Brussels have organized events to share their concerns about serious violations of human rights in Pakistan: the abuse of the blasphemy laws,  the non-prosecution of perpetrators of false statements of blasphemy, the non-respect of the presumption of innocence in case of blasphemy charges and the abuse of the pretrial detention, the lack of security for religious and ethnic minorities, the kidnappings of Christian girls and forced conversions and the death penalty.


On 3-4 November, the European Parliament’s Delegation for Relations with South Asia paid an official visit to Islamabad. The European delegation was comprised of the Chair Mr Nicola PROCACCINI (Italy, ECR), Ms Heidi HAUTALA (Finland, Greens, Vice-President of the European Parliament), Mr Luis GARICANO (Spain, Renew) and Mr Tomáš ZDECHOVSKÝ (Czechia, EPP).


Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF) interviewed Mr Tomáš ZDECHOVSKÝ about his visit to Pakistan:


HRWF: From your discussions with a wide range of Pakistani authorities, do you feel that there is a genuine political will to fight against a number of violations of human rights concerning the blasphemy laws, the security of religious and ethnic minorities, the kidnappings of Christian girls and forced conversions, the forced conversions of minors or the death penalty.


MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: The problems come from the extremists of radical Islam. This is a powerful group that unfortunately still has significant influence and puts pressure on institutions, especially the courts, to impose the harshest possible penalties for accusations of blasphemy.


The truth is, however, that the current government of Prime Minister Imran Khan has taken some partial steps to improve religious freedom and is making efforts to improve the position of minority groups. The good news is, for example, the success in the world-famous case of a Christian woman called Asia Bibi. She was originally sentenced to death but eventually her release was secured. She and her family were allowed to travel to Canada.


Following her release, an inter-ministerial committee on religious tolerance was also set up. It is precisely on the issue of the position of Christians and other religious minorities in Pakistani society that I see huge space for improvement.


HRWF: What is the state of play of the parliamentary work in Pakistan to improve the legislation on some of these issues? What are the obstacles? Who is opposed to such progress in the Pakistani parliament?

MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: As I indicated in my previous reply, the current ruling political party Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Pakistan Movement for Justice) has taken some partial steps to improve the status of religious minorities and the overall human rights situation in the country. These efforts are also facing opposition at the parliamentary level from radical Islamists. In the Pakistani Parliament, this is particularly the case with the relatively small Islamist party Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, notorious for, among other things, trying to prevent the release of the aforementioned Christian woman named Asia Bibi.

HRWF: Mob violence against religious minorities is a real source of concern. Have this issue and the extremism issue been discussed during your meetings? What is your assessment of the situation of the situation?


MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: Yes, the issue of violence against religious minorities was also discussed during our mission. I will continue to support all efforts in areas where more concrete action is needed, such as human rights – in particular, blasphemy laws and the rights of religious minorities. The persecution of Christians in Pakistan is an issue I have been dealing with for a long time.


HRWF: After this visit in Pakistan, what will you propose to your political group concerning the GSP+ status of Pakistan?

MEP Tomas Zdechovsky: First of all, it should be remembered that Pakistan is one of the important players in the international arena that certainly cannot be ignored.  The EU wishes to remain a reliable partner for Pakistan, not only in the economic sphere. At the same time, however, it expects that this will not be done without the adoption of conventions addressing the conditions of children, workers and minorities, which is a necessary condition for inclusion in the GSP+ system allowing easier access to the European market.


Pakistan, too, is well aware of the importance of relations with the EU and has shown its willingness to take steps to improve these matters. During the visit, we were informed, among other things, that Pakistan has committed itself to the six conventions that are linked to the GSP+ system, which I obviously welcome. If Pakistan continues its efforts, it certainly deserves support for the continuation of GSP+. The European Commission already has a proposal on the table for a GSP+ conference after 2023.


Photo Credit: The News

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website

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PAKISTAN: EU urged to act over ‘continued rights abuses’ by Pakistan

EU urged to act over ‘continued rights abuses’ by Pakistan

Eureporter.co (17.09.2021) – https://bit.ly/3tTAG2hCoalition spokesman Andy Vermaut :

The EU institutions have been urged to act urgently in the case of Pakistan’s alleged continued human rights abuses.  A coalition of respected human rights NGOs, coming together under the umbrella of Human Rights Without Frontiers (HRWF),delivered a letter to the EU’s High Representative Josep Borrell, calling for the suspension of Pakistan’s GSP+ status, which gives the country preferential trading rights with the EU, on the basis of “continued human rights abuses” .  


In the letter, delivered by hand to the Brussels offices of Borrell, a former Spanish MEP, on Wednesday, the NGOs particularly highlighted the abuses of Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  This has recently seen an eight year old child charged with blasphemy “against the prophet” an offence carrying a mandatory death sentence.     The letter follows a recent conference on the matter, also hosted by the Press Club in Brussels, which was addressed by former European Commissioner Jan Figel, MEP Peter van Dalen and others.

A UK parliamentary group has since declared its support for the campaign, headed by HRWF.  One of the organisers of the letter told this site that there is particular concern about Pakistan’s current country’s blasphemy laws, and the lack of respect for the presumption of innocence.  The letter handed to Borrell, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, cites article 12 of a European parliament Joint Motion For A Resolution, dated April 28 and passed by 681 votes.  This pledges “to immediately review Pakistan’s eligibility for GSP+ status in the light of current events and whether there is sufficient reason to initiate a procedure for the temporary withdrawal of this status and the benefits that come with it, and to report to the European Parliament on this matter as soon as possible”.

The recent conference heard that of the benefits given as a result of the current agreement with Pakistan, around 20% only accrued to the EU, causing, in the opinion of the conference, no significant potential detrimental economic impact on the EU or the member states.  The imposition of the mandatory death sentence for those found guilty of blasphemy against the prophet, particularly in the context of such charges having recently been levelled at an eight year old child, makes, in the opinion of the conference, the current GSP+ status enjoyed by Pakistan “morally and politically untenable.”

During the conference, the names were read out of 47 prisoners who are currently held on blasphemy charges in Pakistan.  They are: Mubashir Ahmed; Gulab Ahmed; Ahtesham Ahmed; Zahid Ahmed; Ahmed Waqar; Anwar; Islam; Mailik Ashraf; Anwar Ashgar; Ahmed Ashgar; Noor Ashgar; Malik Ashraf; Kausar Ayub; Amud Ayub; Taimur; Siya; Raza; Zafar Bati; Md. Safi; Md. Shehzad; Rehmat Ali; Asif; Md. Aslam; Arif Mehdi; Junaid; Hafeez; Abdul Hamid; Md. Faruq; Hayai Bin; Malik; Md. Humayan Faysal; Aftab Mastargil; Nadeem James; Arif Massih; Saudi Issaq; Abdul Karim; Imran Massih; Yakub; Ishfaq Massih; Saba Massih; Bashir; Mastan Mushtaq; Shamsuddin; Md. Yussaf; Inayat Rasool; Iqbal and Md. Aslam.

The list comprises Ahmediyyas, Shias, Hindus, and Christians.  Sixteen of these have been handed a death sentence.  The letter sent to  Borrell on Wednesday states that “Accordingly, we wish to ask the High Representative – who has previously stated that suspension of Pakistan’s GSP+ status is a measure of last measures – what his current position is in this regard?”  The letter, seen by this site,  goes on to say that “given that Pakistan’s behaviour clearly contravenes the requirement for GSP+ beneficiaries to ratify 27 international conventions, numerous it is clearly in breach of, we respectfully ask how the High Representative can justify the continuation of Pakistan’s GSP+ status?”  No one from the EEAS was immediately available for comment to this website on Wednesday (15 September).


Photo: Andy Vermaut – eureporter.co

Further reading about FORB in Pakistan on HRWF website

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