TWELVE-YEAR-OLD Zarviya left her home in Rawalpindi with a couple known to her family, who said they would take her to buy a Mother’s Day gift for her mother. She never returned. Her parents later found out that she had been kidnapped, drug­ged, and married to a 35-year-old man, and she was no longer Christian — her parents’ faith — but Mus­lim. This is the lived reality of an increasing number of families in Pakistan who belong to minority faiths.

There is a paedophilic emergency in Pakistan, and this particular one targets young girls from communities of religious minorities. Almost all the victims are young girls, who are kidnapped, threatened, and blackmailed. Zarviya was told by her kidnappers that if she tried escaping or complaining, her brothers would be killed. Imagine the horror this young child must have had to go through.

The issues of sexual violence against children, discrimination against minorities and misogyny intersect to create this specific issue that is increasingly pressing, but the state of Pakistan continues to fail minority communities.

Just last month, the Sikh community in Buner, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa took to the streets to protest against a similar incident where it was alleged that a 25-year-old teacher was forcibly converted and married to a Muslim man. Earlier in March, a 17-year-old Hindu girl was shot dead in Rohri, Sindh after resisting an abduction attempt by Muslim men. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimated that in 2018 alone, at least 1,000 cases of forced conversions were reported.

The issue of forced conversions of minority girl children has serious ramifications.

What is unique is that victims are almost always young girls from minority communities. Under the veneer of doing a religious service of conversion, what is actually happening is that older men are targeting minor girls with impunity. How come we never hear of young boys or men being forcibly converted?

Impunity, because the law against forced conversions was rejected by a federal parliamentary committee in October 2021 and no further progress has been made on it due to pressure from the very perpetrators and their allies. In Sindh, where it has been passed, it remains unimplemented, with judges cowing to pressure to favour the abusers.

Impunity, because in much of the country there is no law against child marriage. Conservative parties who oppose such a law seem to want to continue the horrible practice of young children being married. Only Sindh, in 2013, managed to pass a law outlawing marriage under the age of 18 for both boys and girls. However, as per a Population Council report titled Child Marriage in Sindh: A Political Economy Analysis,launched in December 2021, Sindh has seen an increase in the incidence of child marriages, especially of girls under 15. Clearly, the executive and judiciary are not ensuring implementation of the law.

Pakistan accepts the legal definition of a child as any individual under the age of 18, in line with the UN’s Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC). Nevertheless, as per the Child Marriage Restraint Act, 1929 and Muslim Family Laws Ordinance, 1961, the minimum age for marriage for boys is 18 and for girls 16 years everywhere except Sindh — which is contradictory.

Impunity, because despite forced marriages being illegal, especially of children, courts continue to provide relief to abusers who kidnap young girls from minority faiths and forcibly marry them. The judge on the Lahore High Court’s Rawalpindi bench reportedly dismissed Zarviya’s case within one-and-a-half minutes by declaring it a consensual marriage.

How can a 12-year-old child consent to marrying an adult? How can a 12-year-old consent to changing her religion? How can a 12-year-old be away from her parents’ guardianship? How can a 12-year-old be anywhere but in school?

The issue of forced conversions of minority girl children has serious ramifications.

First, this is a violation of the inherent dignity of children and their families guaranteed by Article 14 of the Constitution, as well as the right to religious freedom guaranteed by Article 20.

Second, this has a huge impact on the education of minority children whose families are hesitant to send their daughters to schools and colleges out of fear of them being kidnapped and forcibly converted, in violation of Article 25-A. I have heard this fear expressed firsthand by members of minority communities.

Third, this violates the fundamental rights of children who are guaranteed basic security and liberty as per Article 9. It also violates Article 11 (outlawing slavery and forced labour) as many girls are trafficked and forced into sex work, as documented by the Peoples Commission for Minorities Rights.

Fourth, this fear compels minority communities to leave Pakistan despite this country being their home. If the entire system is failing to protect them, how can they accrue citizenship rights?

Fifth, in failing to protect minorities, the state is not only violating its constitutional duties, but also its commitments under international law — including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights — as well as Pakistan’s commitments to improve human rights protection under the GSP+ status. The latter is accorded by the European Union for trade and tariff concessions.

The violation of the children’s innocence, their abduction for sexual exploitation and the helplessness of the parents who are denied custody of their minors, should serve as a wake-up call for the state. Religious parties and the Council of Islamic Ideology should condemn the criminal behaviour of actors that forcibly convert and marry children, instead of invoking consent — the importance of which is never highlighted even in the case of adults who choose to marry consensually.

Parliament must legislate to outlaw forced conversions and child marriages, and the judiciary and police must resist pressure from perpetrators to prevent them from safeguarding the rights of minority communities.

Zarviya deserves a childhood with her parents and the right to go to school, not a childhood scarred by exploitation and rape by an older man. Let us ensure Pakistan is a safe home for all, rather than completely failing those represented by the white in the flag.

The writer is director of Bolo Bhi, an advocacy forum for digital rights.

Twitter: @UsamaKhilji

Published in Dawn, September 15th, 2022

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