Towards Effective Remedies Against Forced Conversions
In an increasingly volatile state-society complex like Pakistan, human rights violations continue to surface time and again, bringing individual suffering to countless non-Muslim citizens and reinforcing the systemic biases against minority faith-based communities.
At the epicenter of this fault-line is the Hindu and Christian woman, doomed to a lesser life as a second-class citizen in a Muslim majority (potentially, Muslim-only?) country. Discriminated on account of faith, gender, race, color and class, minority women bear the brunt of a socio-cultural landscape where certain powerful groups continue to operate with relative impunity, enforcing their preaching upon young girls and women and forcibly confining, converting and exploiting them.
Year after year, a grotesque and heart-wrenching story comes to surface, triggering concerns among civil society and policy circles about the need to protect vulnerable non-Muslim women in the future. The recent controversy over the conversion of two young girls, Reena and Raveena from Ghotki, is one such case in point.
What Does the Law Say?
A severe discrepancy endures between the legal safeguards enshrined under the Constitution, the human rights instruments ratified by Pakistan and the criminal justice system practices on the ground. The primary reason for this disconnection is the legislative impasse, at least until recently vis-à-vis the development of personal laws for minorities to govern private matters including marriage, inheritance, divorce, custody and maintenance.
Additionally, practical difficulties in the ascertainment of age or the mala fide intentions of parties to hide previous marriages coupled with the relative ease with which official documentation can be acquired by respondents through fraudulent means pose particular challenges in cases involving minority women.
One wonders as to what extent, if at all, has progressive pro-women legislation (post 2000) had the effect of curbing the rise in violence against women, particularly against those belonging to vulnerable and marginalized communities. Under the Anti-Women Practices Act, 2010, a new criminal offense was inserted into the Pakistan Penal Code, 1860, prohibiting forced marriages under Section 498B and stipulating a maximum punishment of 10 years and a minimum punishment of 3 years for the accused along with a fine of five hundred thousand rupees.
Seven years later, weeks before Pakistan’s review in Brussels regarding the GSP+ status, the National Assembly passed the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act 2017 (IV) wherein a proviso had been added to Section 498B to enhance the punitive regime in cases of forced marriage, making the marriage of a minor and non-Muslim woman an offense punishable with not less than five years of imprisonment.
However, according to the latest media reports and local NGO sources, this legal safeguard remains largely unimplemented, primarily because the government has failed to take ownership of the law.
The relative ease and impunity with which minority women are kidnapped, forcibly converted to Islam and unlawfully married to Muslim men, is attributable to a number of systemic factors. Firstly, the negligent, complicit and even hostile attitudes of the police and judicial officers put the aggrieved party at a disadvantaged position from the get-go, significantly diminishing the victim’s faith and confidence in the criminal justice system.
Moreover, an overwhelming majority of the functionaries of the justice system identify themselves with the majority faith and maybe potentially under the influence of subjective beliefs associated with the glory, redemption and divine reward or with being the individual responsible for converting someone’s faith to their religion.
Silence of the Lamb – Key Findings
Silence of the Lamb, an ongoing research study by the Peoples Commission for Minorities Rights and the Centre for Social Justice, tabulates data for 143 individual cases of reported conversions of Hindu and Christian girls and women to Islam between 2013 and 2019.
Among at least 16 of these cases reported during 2019, the converted/married girls had, in the capacity as petitioner, sought relief from the court, thereby showing that an element of coercion could have been present in the said instances of forced conversion and marriage.
Data further show that episodes of forced conversion are accompanied by a range of other criminal offenses, including, but not limited to, forced marriage, underage or child marriage, statutory rape, rape, gang-rape, kidnapping, abduction, forced prostitution, assault and use or threat of use of force.
This kaleidoscope of crimes serves to reiterate the complicated nature of cases involving faith and gender-based violence committed against hundreds and thousands of young minority women across the country every year.
Among other law and policy recommendations, the study calls upon the Ministry of Human Rights to set up a committee of experts to examine the bills presented in the National Assembly with the objective of finalizing a single draft that can be presented in the House as a joint draft of the Treasury and the Opposition.
The Bigger Picture
A bigger, more telling question still looms at large.
Why is it that despite the deterrence created from anti-conversion laws (498B), the rate of incidence of forced conversion remains alarmingly high?
And how is it that even after high-profile cases (Reena & Raveena (2019): Anjali Kumari (2014)) have come to tract a great deal of local and international censure, the ground reality is that victims and their families still remain too scared or too reluctant to report to the police?
To answer these questions, it is important to look beyond statistical patterns and legal technicalities, and in doing so, understand the larger context within which minority women in Pakistan are subjected to the ‘double jeopardy’ or ‘double discrimination’ phenomenon. Steeped in a vicious cycle of poverty, illiteracy and unemployment, inherited and reinforced over decades of social and economic marginalization, minority men and women have only limited access to opportunities for educational and professional development and remain conscious of hiding their faith and religion for the fear being called out, persecuted, abused, or even killed, due to aspects of their individual identity.
The Way Forward
Stepping forward, a comprehensive set of legal, policy and administrative measures must be initiated at the federal and provincial levels as part of a synergized, multi-stakeholder effort to prevent and eliminate forced faith conversions in the future.
Firstly, special safeguards are needed for victimized women vis-à-vis protection, confidentiality, restitution, privacy and legal participation in the form of more effective witness protection schemes, pro bono legal facilities and expedited procedures before, during and post trial.
Secondly, it is important to recognize that sustainable change is only possible if official personnel (judges, police officers/officials, etc.) involved during the reporting, investigation and prosecution of forced conversion cases are regularly sensitized on the issue.
Lastly, to keep up with advances on the legislative front, it is essential that an all-out awareness campaign is launched to educate minority citizens about their fundamental rights and freedoms and the general public about the punitive laws pertaining to forced faith conversions and related crimes.
The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of CourtingTheLaw.com or any other organization with which he\she might be associated.