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Bishops of Pakistan on Int’l Day of the Girl Child: Govt must end forced marriage and conversion of minor girls

  • 1,000 girls from religious minorities are targeted for forced conversions through sham marriages in Pakistan every year 
  • Human rights body of the Pakistan Catholic Bishop’s Conference demands government action to end this violation on Int’l Day of the Girl Child 

LAHORE (11 October 2021) – On the International Day of the Girl Child, Catholic Bishops have taken action to challenge religious freedom violations against teenage girls. In a statement released this morning, the National Commission for Justice and Peace – the human rights body of the Pakistan Catholic Bishop’s Conference – have called on the authorities to take tangible legislative action to end forced marriages for the purpose of forced conversion. The statement further criticises the resistance of the government so far to pass legislation to this effect. The Bishops’ action joins wider international voices on the issue including human rights group ADF International, which has launched an open letter calling for young girls from religious minorities to be protected from the horrors of abduction and forced marriage. 

“Nobody should be persecuted because of their faith. In Pakistan, young Christian girls are abducted and converted through forced marriage. The case of Maira is just one shocking example. We call on supporters to add their voice to the #EndForcedMarriage campaign and sign the letter to apply maximum international pressure to the Pakistani authorities, and to let these girls know that someone hears their voice,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International. 

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In a joint statement, His Excellency Bishop Samson Shukardin, Chairperson, Rev. Fr. Emmanuel Yousaf (Mani), National Director, and Mr. Naeem Yousaf Gill, Executive Director, called on the federal government to take “a logical and legal stance in accordance with its international obligations and constitutional provisions for the protection of the rights of minorities.” 

“The victim child faces extreme agony of fear, separation from parents and physical, mental and emotional exploitation. It is observed that parents of the victim child are threatened to keep silent. In fact, the crime of forced conversion involves multiple violations of human rights including freedom of religion and fundamental human rights,” they added. 

The conference further called for the minimum age of marriages to be increased to 18 years old, in line with Pakistan’s international commitments.

Maira, escapee from forced marriage, speaks out  

Many girls from religious minorities in Pakistan and across South Asia fear for their safety. 14-year-old Maira is one of the estimated 1000 girls that are “converted” against their will through a forced marriage in the country every year. Maira escaped her abductor and “husband”, and now waits in hiding while her legal team fight in court to annul her marriage certificate. ADF International, the human rights organisation supporting Maira’s case, is gathering signatures for an open letter to the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, calling on the government to address this common threat to girls from religious minorities. 

“I was forcibly abducted, forced to sign documents, and told that I had to become a Muslim. I was also told that I was now married and could not return to my parents. They threatened to kill my parents and harm my loved ones. I thank God that Sumera is my lawyer. I want to appeal to the government of Pakistan to pay attention to this case and ensure proper prosecution,” said Maira.  

International action to #EndForcedMarriage on Int’l Day of the Girl Child 

The open letter, drafted by ADF International, calls on the government of Pakistan to create reporting helplines, return minors to their parents, and train the police and judiciary to better protect girls belonging to religious minorities. The human rights organisation calls for supporters of the campaign to post a picture of themselves wearing green with the hashtag #EndForcedMarriage on 11 October and sign the letter on EndForcedMarriage.org.  

A global concern 

Forced conversion through forced marriage is not unique to one country. Reports have emerged of girls being forcibly married to the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban have also already publicized plans to “eradicate the ignorance of irreligion” by taking non-Muslim women and girls as sex slaves. In Northern Nigeria, many Christian girls face forced marriages and forced conversions to Islam. In Northwest Nigeria, the median age of marriage is only 15, and girls usually have no say in the matter. According to UN Women, approximately 700 million girls worldwide have been married before their eighteenth birthday. One in every three girls in developing countries is married before reaching the age of 18 and one in nine is married under age 15. 

“Governments must do more to prevent such extreme violations of fundamental rights in the country. Maira’s case is a much too frequent example of what religious minorities face and can no longer go unnoticed. All people have the right to freely choose and live out their faith without fear of violence. All states must ensure that their laws and policies are in line with their commitments to protect religious freedom under international law,” said Paul Coleman, Executive Director of ADF International. 

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