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Govt urged to strengthen legal & administrative measures to protect women’s rights

  • A bill against forced conversions must be revised and tabled in the legislative assemblies

KARACHI, Pakistan: The forced conversions threaten the religious freedom and religious diversity of Pakistan, therefore, legal and administrative safeguards must be introduced and implemented to address the crimes involving forced conversions, child marriages, and sexual violence in Pakistan.

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These demands were made by the panelists of the press conference “Break the Bias” to mark International Women’s Day held at Karachi Press Club on Monday under the aegis of the Voice for Justice, a human rights body striving to promote equality of rights and religious freedom.

Speaking on the occasion, the Chairperson of the Sindh Commission on the Status of Women Nuzhat Shirin said that the high prevalence of early marriages in Pakistan has been attributed to poverty, social norms, traditions and customs, and religious misperceptions. It is encouraging that the Islamabad High Court (IHC) has declared that the marriage of children under the age of 18 is unlawful, even of their own free will.

Besides, the Federal Shariat Court has issued a ruling that setting a legal minimum marriageable age by a government in an Islamic state is not an un-Islamic act, which paves way for the abolition of marriages for children under 18 years of age in Pakistan.

The President of the Sindh Chapter of Voice for Justice Asif Bastian emphasized that advancing religious freedom is a human rights obligation of the states, therefore, the government needs to fulfill its responsibility towards protecting the rights, and take measures to ensure freedom, and justice for marginalized groups.

The Spokesperson of the Voice for Justice Ilyas Samuel said that the absence of an adequate institutional response is encouraging the involuntary, unethical, and manipulated faith conversions and marriages of minority women and this situation need a serious response from all stakeholders.

A human rights activist Naghma Shaikh said that the lack of enforcement of existing domestic law remains a key impediment in preventing such practices and in allowing perpetrators to escape justice. It is lamentable that several survivors of the forced conversions have reunited with their families but the perpetrators enjoy impunity against their crimes under the guise of faith conversion and marriage.

A human rights defender Ghazala Shafique said that the government lacks a narrative on forced conversions, therefore it needs to realize the forced conversions as a human rights issue, not a religious matter, and it ought to introduce legislation against this practice, without surrendering its political will to the religious groups.

A human rights activist Seemi Emmanuel said that the forced conversions are linked with the State’s failure to implement and enforce existing laws relating to abduction, child marriage, and forced marriage, especially where the victims are from religious minority communities.

A human rights activist Humayun Waqas said that citizens are guaranteed the right to religious freedom in Article 20 of the Constitution of Pakistan, it is illegal and unethical to compel them to change their faith by use of threat, coercion, and/or manipulation.

In order to address the human rights abuses involving forced conversions, child marriages, and sexual abuse, we call upon federal and provincial governments to take the following measures:

  • Affirmative action must be taken for the protection, promotion, and fulfillment of minority rights, particularly in the context of reforming the existing civil and criminal justice system to render it more sensitive to the needs of victims of forced conversions and their families.
  • A bill to amend the Child Marriage Restraint Act must be moved in the national and provincial legislative assemblies to ensure that the minimum marriageable age is set at 18 years for both boys and girls, and the marriage with minor children is declared null and void. As an interim measure, a hold should be placed on the validation of any marriages associated with faith conversions by the magistrates. It is necessary that verification or ascertaining of the age, and free will should be required by senior civil judges in such cases.
  • A committee of experts comprising of jurists and human rights activists should be set up to revise the draft bill introducing safeguards against forced faith conversions in conformity with international human rights standards, and the draft bill should be tabled in the national and provincial legislative assemblies.
  • Ensure that public opinion in favor of the Bill against forced conversions is strengthened using all possible mediums, including print, electronic and social media.
  • Ensure that the allegations of forced conversion and forced marriage are independently, impartially, and promptly investigated 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.
  • Legislative and educational measures are taken to ensure that girls and women are free from physical abuse, domestic and sexual violence, or being subjected to any medical procedure without informed consent, and deprivation of reproductive autonomy and rights.

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