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Govt urged to protect religious minorities at home than pointing fingers

LAHORE, Pakistan: The killing of Pooja Kumari, a Hindu girl, for resisting her abduction and forcible conversion and forced marriage coincided with the OIC conference hosted by the government of Pakistan that discussed issues faced by Muslims abroad whilst ignoring the atrocities committed against minorities at home. It is heartening that the incident at hand has been widely condemned by civil society and individuals on social and mainstream media. The rights groups have demanded authorities to ensure an impartial investigation into this incident and due process of law.

In a statement issued in Lahore, Wajahat Masood and Peter Jacob, the Chairperson and Executive Director at the Centre for Social Justice, have resented the consistent failure of the government to tackle religion and gender-based violence in the country urging the government “to adopt policy and implement a National Action Plan to address extremism, violence, and persecution of minorities.” They further stated that the forced conversions violate the citizens’ religious freedom and undermine religious diversity of Pakistan, therefore, the government should address the impunity associated with the practice.”

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The forced conversions of minor girls and gender-based violence is a long-standing and persistent occurrence in Pakistan. The data collected by the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) revealed that at least 78 cases of forced or involuntary conversions involving 39 Hindu, 38 Christian, and one Sikh girls/ women were reported during 2021 including; 40 cases in Sindh, 36 in Punjab and one case each in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan. The incidents increased by 80% as compared to 2020 and 50% as compared to 2019. Notably, 33% of victims were 14 years of age or below, and 76% of the victims were minors (below 18 years of age), furthermore, the age of 18% was not mentioned, therefore there is reason to believe that 94% victims were minors.

The CSJ’s statement also challenged the narrative claiming that the incidence of conversions was basically love-marriages contracted after voluntary conversions to Islam. “The change of faith largely by underage girls speaks volumes of the vulnerability of the converts, and the motivation of perpetrators behind. The religious freedom of all citizens is protected under Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan, therefore it is illegal and unethical to compel minorities to change their faith by use of threat, coercion, or manipulation,” it further stated.

The office-bearers of CSJ observed that the minority girls and women are targeted because of the social and material vulnerabilities, hence they cannot avail access to justice, which the perpetrators use to manipulate the justice system and get away with their crimes. CSJ demanded the government to implement the Islamabad High Court’s declaration of marriages under the age of 18 as unlawful, even of their own free will. Besides, the Federal Shariat Court’s ruling that setting a legal minimum marriageable age by a government was not an un-Islamic act. Therefore, the legislators should not hesitate to bring an amendment to the existing laws to prevent child marriages alongside, administrative, and procedural measures for effective implementation on the protection of vulnerable citizens.

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The statement added that the lack of enforcement of existing domestic laws particularly Sections 375, 376, 493-A, 498-B, and 466 of the Pakistan Penal Code was a key impediment in preventing such practices. Therefore, the government must introduce and implement effective legal and administrative safeguards to protect minorities against crimes involving forced conversions, child /forced marriages and sexual violence in Pakistan.

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