VIENNA (11 October 2023) – 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.
On this year’s International Day of the Girl Child, ADF International has highlighted the testimonies of survivors in a new 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. Experts from the legal advocacy organization propose concrete steps that governments could take to prevent the crimes of abduction, forced conversion, and forced marriage.
“They put a paper in front of me and told me to sign it. I was later told that I was now a Muslim, and I could not go back to my home. I started screaming. I said I wanted to go home. They took out a gun and threatened me…intimidated me. They then locked me up,” shared Nayab Gill, survivor of forced conversion and marriage from Pakistan, aged thirteen at the time of her abduction.
“Nobody should suffer the horrors of abduction and forced marriage, further being forced to give up their faith. These cases are a tremendous violation of these young women’s basic human rights, including their religious freedom. These women and girls often are fearful for their lives and those of their families, preventing them from denouncing their captors. In Pakistan, where these abuses are prevalent, the government has an opportunity to make a difference. Implementing a uniform age for marriage is a concrete step that Pakistan could take to prevent these forced kidnappings and marriages from happening,” said Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International.
Girls from minority religions face acute risk globally
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.
Forced conversion coupled with forced marriage is not unique to one country. Reports have emerged of girls being forcibly married to members of the Taliban in Afghanistan. The Taliban also has 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.
Women and girls challenge their forced marriages in Pakistan
Saima Bibi and Nayab Gill are two of the thousand girls in Pakistan who experienced forced conversions in the context of forced marriages.
Saima, a married mother of three, was working as a maid in the house of a Muslim neighbor until he kidnapped, forcibly converted, and married her in September 2022. Her husband was able to contact a lawyer who registered a complaint with the police and filed a suit to invalidate the marriage and to have the conversion annulled. In May 2023, the court finally declared the marriage invalid and canceled the conversion certificate.
Nayab Gill was 13, attending school, and working at a salon until one day the owner of the salon kidnapped and forcibly married and converted her in 2021. Her parents’ appeal to the court to have her returned was ignored. The court initially refused to acknowledge the documents they produced, which confirmed that she was a minor. This was due to the fact that Nayab at first refused to return home or convert back to Christianity out of fear for her and her family’s safety. Nayab is now back with her family, but her case is still pending before the Supreme Court. It has the potential to result in a landmark ruling, which could lead to the implementation of a uniform age for marriage across Pakistan.
“Governments can and must do more to prevent these extreme violations of basic human rights in their countries. Nayab and Saima’s cases illustrate much too frequent examples of what religious minorities face. These abuses can no longer go unnoticed. All people have the right to freely choose and live out their faith without fear of violence. Every state must ensure that their laws and policies are in line with their commitments to protect religious freedom under international law, and that the laws they do have in place to protect girls from these violations are enforced,” continued Tehmina Arora, Director of Advocacy, Asia for ADF International.