03/09/2017, 15.51
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Punjab government to change Christian marriage law "to protect women"

by Shafique Khokhar

In Pakistan, Christian marriage is governed by rules dating back to British-era legislation. Divorce is permissible only in the case of the wife’s adultery. This has led many Christian men to convert to Islam to end their marriage.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – The Government of Punjab has decided to change four laws that govern Christian marriage in order to better "protect women". The announcement came yesterday, International Women's Day.

The purpose of the change, the authorities argue, "is to give Christian women basic rights, as guaranteed under the Constitution of Pakistan."

Speaking to AsiaNews, Christian activists, educators and parliamentarians praised the decision, which could be a decisive step forward towards the protection of religious minorities, in particular minority women.

Yesterday, the government said that Punjab Human Rights and Minority Affairs Department, the Strategic Reforms Unit, and Women’s Development Department held consultations with stakeholders.

In Pakistan, Christian marriage, succession and inheritance are governed by legislation dating back to the period of British rule: Christian Marriage Act of 1872, the Divorce Act of 1869, the Succession Act of 1925 and the Births, Deaths and Marriages Registration Act of 1886.

"This is a great day for the women of Punjab,” said Marry James Gill, a Christian member of the Provincial Assembly.

“Punjab’s chief minister had already announced his intention to reform Christian family law as part of the Women Empowerment Package 2017, but none of this would have been possible without the support of those who remained steadfast despite difficulties."

For her, wives who lost their lives in violent marital relationships should be remembered "as martyrs."

According Kashif Aslam, national coordinator for the National Commission for Justice and Peace of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of Pakistan, this is "a good decision for Christian women." Still, "it is just an announcement, and has not yet been approved,” he noted.

“These reforms need the support of all players involved. We want to give women room and we must renew our commitment in the field of human rights. I hope that everyone will work together on this."

Ata-ur-Rehman Saman, a Christian educator and activist, believes that the "Government of Punjab has taken the lead in giving relief to women from religious minorities. We really appreciate the initiative and we expect that the amendments will comply with national and international laws."

Under British-era laws, "the only reason for divorce was adultery by women. Let us hope that the change eliminates the humiliation to which they were subjected for centuries under these archaic laws."

The decision "could change the scenario in the life of the Christian community,” said lawyer Kiran Simon. “For years,” she explained, “thousands of Christian men have converted to Islam in order to obtain a divorce.”

“In my professional experience, I have dealt with several cases in which husbands asked strangers to claim a relationship with their wives so as to accuse them of adultery. This way they had the freedom to humiliate them publicly in court to get a divorce.”

“I really hope that our government pushes forward the discussion on the amendments."

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