Lahore: Legislation must be introduced to stop coerced faith conversions, and the pro-women laws ought to be implemented to address the crimes faced by girls and women involving child marriages, and sexual violence in Pakistan, and the government bodies must avoid inviting culprits engaged in gender-based violence, as the guest speakers in official meetings and seminars. These demands were made by the panelists of the press conference “Gender-based violence and minorities” to mark international women’s day held at the Lahore press club under the aegis of the Voice for Justice in collaboration with partner organizations including; Minorities Alliance Pakistan, Rawadari Tehreek, and Christian True Spirit. They referred to the report “Conversion without Consent” and highlighted the cases of underage girls particularly; Zarvia Parvaiz from Rawalpindi, and Hurab Basharat from Faisalabad who became victims of forced faith conversions, child marriage, and sexual violence, however, their perpetrators are yet to be brought to justice.
Speaking on the occasion, Samson Salamat said that the existence of the issue of forced conversion and marriage of underage minority girls is well established, however, it is sad that the lack of enforcement of existing domestic laws remains a key impediment in preventing such practices and in facilitating perpetrators to escape justice. He added that forced conversion and child marriages are human rights issues, not religious matters, and it is unfortunate that the progressive laws dealing with child marriage and forced faith conversions are resisted by religious groups. He said that the government must not leave the complaints of forced faith conversions unaddressed, instead, it should prioritize criminalizing the practice of forced conversions, without surrendering its political will to religious groups that facilitate child marriage and coerced religious conversions.
Ashiknaz Khokhar said that forced conversions threaten the religious freedom and religious diversity of Pakistan. He added that it is illegal and unethical to compel underage minorities to change their faith by use of threat, coercion, and/or manipulation as the consent of a minor child has no legal value, which was reiterated by the Islamabad High Court in its judgment declared in 2022 that the marriage of children under the age of 18 is unlawful, even of their own free will. Similarly, the Lahore High Court in a judgment issued in 2019 held that children lack the legal capacity to change their religion independently. These judgments pave way for the abolition of marriages and conversions of children under 18 years of age in Pakistan, which government must capitalize on to introduce policy reforms to address outstanding issues faced by girls and minorities.
Sumera Shafiq advocate said that Federal Shariat Court has noted that the factors such as; puberty, financial well-being, health, and mental maturity must be taken into consideration for marriage under Islamic law, and the court declared that setting 18 years as the minimum age for marriage for both girls and boys in Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act is not against the injunctions of Islam, because such fixation of minimum age limit provides a reasonable time to girls to complete basic education, which normally helps in developing their mental maturity. This ruling brings an opportunity for federal and provincial governments to amend respective laws to enhance the age of girls from 16 to 18 years to enter into a legally valid marriage.
Katherine Sapna Karamat that the absence of an adequate institutional response emboldens the perpetrators to engage in faith conversions, and this situation demands a serious response by political actors, police, lawyers, judges, and religious leaders to address the coerced conversions and child marriages of minority girls.
Shamoon Bhatti said that the state institutions need to impartially and promptly investigate forced conversion and child marriage with a view to apprehending the perpetrators to bring them to justice in proceedings that guarantee the right to a fair trial, and ensure that victims have the right to access to justice and to an effective remedy.
We call upon federal and provincial governments to take the following measures:
• A bill to criminalize forced faith conversions must be enacted in conformity with international human rights standards and tabled in the national and provincial legislative assemblies without any further delay.
• A bill to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act must be moved in the national and provincial legislative assemblies ensure that the minimum marriageable age is set at 18 years for both boys and girls and that marriage with minor children are declared null and void.