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Freed from forced marriage: Pakistan court annuls marriage between young Christian girl and her abductor

PAKISTAN (8 May 2024) – A court in Pattoki, Pakistan has annulled the forced marriage of Christian girl, Reeha Saleem, who was 17 years old and a student of grade 8 when she was abducted on her way home from school, forced to convert to Islam, and marry her Muslim neighbor in 2019.  

The Family Court, Pattoki, Pakistan found that Reeha had not married her abductor willfully and that her signature on the marriage certificate had been obtained through coercion during her captivity. In the proceedings, Reeha denied that she had converted to Islam and reiterated her Christian faith. The defendant, Muhammad Abbas, was issued several notices for appearance in court but did not comply, resulting in ex-parte proceedings. 

Brimming with joy after the court’s decision, Reeha’s mother, Parveen Saleem, stated: “We’ve faced indescribable difficulties during this time, including being forced to go into hiding to escape from Reeha’s abductor who kept threatening the family to return ‘his wife’. We also suffered from an abrupt end to Reeha’s education. I hope that after the court’s decision to annul the illegal marriage, my daughter can resume her studies and our lives can return to normal. I am deeply grateful to ADF International and their allied lawyer Sumera Shafique for obtaining justice for Reeha, and pray that our country puts an end to these abuses”. 

We are overjoyed that the court has annulled Reeha’s forced marriage and that she will be able to finally move on from this ordeal,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International. 

No girl should suffer the horrors of abduction and forced marriage, further being forced to give up their faith. It is our hope that the annulment of Reeha’s forced marriage will be a positive step forward for the thousands of women and girls in Pakistan who are facing similar ordeals. It is time for the government of Pakistan to intervene further by implementing a minimum age of 18 for marriage across the country in order to prevent these forced marriages and conversions from happening in the first place”.

ADF International supported Reeha’s legal defence and is leading advocacy efforts for the prevention of forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan. 

Girls from minority religions face acute risk globally 

Globally, 100 million girls are at risk of being forced into child marriage over the next decade according to UNICEF. The threat for girls from religious minorities, particularly in certain parts of Asia and Africa, of also being coerced into changing their religion in connection with a forced marriage is particularly acute. In Pakistan, for example, more than 1,000 girls from religious minorities are forced into conversion and marriage every year.   

In Pakistan, ADF International allied lawyers are engaged in supporting women and girls suffering from forced marriage in light of an unsettling trend where the women and girls, often Christian, are forced to convert to Islam for their marriage to be validated by Sharia court. Under Sharia law, which permits marriage at the age of puberty, the marriage age is lower than the official marriage age, which varies between 16 and 18 years in the different Pakistani states. When girls are forced to convert, their parents often are unable to stop the violation from happening.  

Not only are these forced conversions and marriages a tremendous violation of the basic human rights of these young women, but also these women and girls often are fearful for their lives and those of their families, preventing them from denouncing their captors,” stated Arora. “In Pakistan, where these abuses are prevalent, the government has an opportunity to make a difference by implementing a uniform age for marriage and other safeguards in the law.” 

On last year’s International Day of the Girl Child, ADF International highlighted the testimonies of survivors in a mini-documentary. The documentary features interviews with Nayab Gill and Saima Bibi, two Christian girls who endured the human rights violations of forced conversion and marriage and have since escaped.

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Forced conversion coupled with forced marriage is not unique to one country. In Northern Nigeria, for example, 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.   

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