LAHORE, Pakistan: A National Conference was held on Tuesday on the issue of Protections of religious minorities from Forced Conversion under the auspices of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ) and Peoples’ Commission for Minorities Rights (PCMR) in anticipation of the International human rights day.
The conference was attended by senior human rights activists in person and hundreds of participants online.
The conference resolution was adopted as an appeal to the Prime Minister of Pakistan which included seven points’ recommendations seeking protection of minorities from forced conversion.
In the opening remarks, Peter Jacob, the Executive Director CSJ stated that the ongoing phenomenon of forced conversion threatens religious freedom and conscience as well as religious diversity of Pakistan.
In addition, the data analysis involving 162 cases of conversion of mainly Hindu and Christian minor girls from Punjab and Sindh explains the vulnerability of minority women to various gender crimes. The trends reflected in the data from 2013 to 2020 shows that no province or minority was immune to this abuse and at least 46% of the converted females were below the age of 18, while the age of 37% was not mentioned. Only 16% of females were more than 18 years.
A spike was seen in 2019, Bahawalpur district topped the list in reported conversions (21), followed by Karachi and Lahore.
Ms. Hina Jillani, renowned Human Rights Activist and former Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General on human rights defenders shed light on the growing pattern of religious intolerance in Pakistan.
She explained that the shrinking space for various freedoms in the country is damaging the very fabric of our society and undermining democracy, moreover, putting the lives of already marginalized communities of religious minorities in grave danger.
She emphasized that “Prioritizing religious freedom is not only a human rights obligation but it also assesses space of liberty, freedom, and justice for the excluded ones.
Therefore, rolling back the drift of violence and oppression, the government of Pakistan will have to wake up to its responsibility regarding protecting the rights of minorities within institutional frameworks.”
Lal Chand Malhi, the Parliamentary secretary for human rights, briefed participants on the progress of the Parliamentary Committee to Protect Minorities from Forced Conversions, constituted back in November 2019. Malhi stated that the committee shall have probed into the issue of forced conversions in Sindh and it is working to come up with solid legislative proposals.
He further added that “Forced Conversions have become an abuse of religion and law and we all need to work in coordination to put an end to this growing violent phenomenon”
Justice (R) Mehta Kailash Kohli discussed the existing framework of legal protection for victims of forced conversions. He asserted that all pending and future cases must be investigated under Section 498 B and other provisions of the Pakistan Penal Code.
He stated that forced faith conversions are grave human rights abuses which violate the religious freedom enshrined in the constitution of Pakistan therefore all administrative, legal, and legislative measures should be applied, particularly the minimum age for marriage should be raised to 18 years through amendment of the Child Marriage Restraint Act in all the provinces.
“It is necessary that verification or ascertaining of the age, presence of free will should be required by senior civil judges in such cases” he added.
Highlighting the psychological impact of forced conversions, Dr Heera Lal Lohano, a Consultant on Emotional and Behavioral Health, elaborated that faith conversion & marriages of minor girls pose serious implications to the psychological wellbeing of the victims, families, and the society at large.
He further explained that “Forced Conversions could result in negative mental health outcomes which include but not limited to anxiety, depression, negative self-esteem, distress, hopelessness, loneliness, distress, behavioral and other emotional difficulties”.
Ms Pushpa kumari, Member Sindh human rights commission, stressed that minorities’ susceptibility to forced conversions is very much related, among other factors, to social and economic vulnerability.
“Religious Minorities are often marginalized and segregated due to their low socio-economic status, poor health conditions; and low literacy. The forced conversions further hinder the victim families’ access to fair trials and little recourse against the perpetrators” she said.
Ret. Rev Alexander John Malik Bishop Emeritus of Lahore Diocese stated that perusing and establishing respect for human rights is in our national interest. Religion was being abused to cover up heinous crimes, including human trafficking under the practice of forced and underage marriages.
He further stated that today, the compliance to rule of law, equal protection, and providing progressive legislative reforms at the macro, mezzo, and administrative level is the most daunting task for the state.
“Therefore the human rights institutions, particularly a statutory, empowered and autonomous Commission for Minorities Rights should be established”, he added.
Senior Advocate of Sindh High Court, Bhagwan Dass highlighted the obstacles that victims of forced conversion faced regarding effective legal aid and the custody of minors.
Quoting various incidents of forced conversions, he explained that “The access to justice in such cases is hindered by the low social influence and resources. Ascertaining the will of the alleged victims who remain in the custody of the perpetrator results in constant pressure and fear of violent retaliation, therefore many families choose not to report cases against influential abusers.
In closing remarks, the Chairperson of CSJ, veteran journalist Wajaht Masood, strongly urged the government to adopt effective measures to curb the criminality involved under the pretext of faith conversions and urgent and concrete response to protect religious minorities from the reoccurring violations of rights, particularly the forced conversions of minority women.
He also called for a societal response in order to build an alliance against all injustices against the weakest section.
He thanked former Chief Justice Tassaduq Hussain Jillani, for his generous donation to the Centre for Social Justice which will be used to set up an endowment to be called Justice for All, borrowing the name from the Judicial Anthem he wrote in 2014.
Munizae Jahangir, executive producer Aaj News, moderated the Conference sessions; sharing her insights as a media person she said “The absence of an adequate institutional response is encouraging the involuntary, unethical, and manipulated conversions and marriages of minority women and this situation needs a serious response from all stakeholders” stating that Munizae Jahangir invited the participants and all concerned citizens to pledge their support by signing and circulating the petition.
- The Federal Ministry of Human Rights should carry out a comprehensive study and analysis of the issue, including under-trial cases, and the remedies, if any, provided by the concerned departments and institutions.
- The Parliamentary Committee established in November 2019 should only make statements based on factual inquiries and comprehensive data analysis.
- The police all over the country must investigate all pending cases and future cases under Section 498 B Pakistan Penal Code, as this enactment is particularly relevant to forced conversion and marriages involving minority women. However, the proviso has not been put to practice since the enactment in 2017.
- An amendment bill in the Criminal Procedure Code should be introduced that makes all religious conversions be acknowledged, verified, and validated by a Senior Civil Judge to ascertain the presence of a free will, consent, in addition to the appropriateness of age and marital status of the parties.
- The Majority Act and Child Marriage Restraint Act be amended to bring these into conformity with NADRA ACT and other laws on the majority.
- An autonomous, empowered and statutory National Commission for Minorities Rights be constituted without further delay.
- The Chief Justice of Pakistan is respectfully urged to consider sensitization of the judiciary and judicial officers on the issue of forced conversions and the above-mentioned recommendations.