11/29/2019, 17.50
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New parliamentary committee on forced conversions is an encouraging sign

by Shafique Khokhar

The heads of Pakistan’s Senate and National Assembly are behind the initiative. Over the years, several attempts to legislate in the matter have failed. Hundreds of Christian and Hindu girls and young women are abducted, raped, converted and forced to marry their tormentor. For Peter Jacob, conversion to Islam is a pretext.

Lahore (AsiaNews) – Pakistani civil society groups have welcomed the establishment of a parliamentary committee to look into ways to protect girls and young women from forced conversions. The latter is the initiative of the chairman of the Senate and the speaker of the National Assembly.

For Peter Jacob, executive director of the Centre for Social Justice (CSJ), this is an encouraging development that his group is ready to support in every possible way to protect freedom of religion and belief.

For years Pakistani human rights groups have been demanding a law to punish those who abduct girls and young women to force them into marriage. This is especially troubling for Pakistan’s Christian and Hindu communities whose young women are often victims of harassment and abuse.

The usual pattern sees girls and young women abducted to satisfy the desires of much older Muslim men. The victims are humiliated, frequently raped, forced to convert to Islam and marry their kidnappers or those who commissioned the kidnapping.

“We hope,” the executive director said, “that the committee will come up with meaningful and precise recommendations.” He hopes that legislation will be adopted “to curb coercive, forced and unethical conversions” and the “detestable forced marriage of minority women” and girls.

Far too often, teenage girls “have faced threats and violence, abduction and rape under the pretext of conversion to Islam”, says Jacob, who adds that those responsible for women trafficking are known to the authorities.

Certain “religious personalities issue conversion certificates without any legal basis,” he laments. Hence, “The law must immediately take its course.”

In collaboration with the People’s Commission for Minority Rights, the CSJ has reported 159 such cases for the 2013-2019 period. In 16 cases, victims went before the Sindh High Court seeking relief from forced marriages. In one case, the Lahore High Court took into protective custody a Christian girl named Charlotte, who had been married off and converted against her will in April 2019.

In 2017, the National Assembly approved the Criminal Law (amendment) Act IV that made forced marriage with a non-Muslim woman an offence, punishable with five to seven years in prison, as well as a fine. However, the law failed to go through the Senate.

Now that a new parliamentary committee is in place, its members will also be able to vet the findings of an inquiry into phoney brides taken from Pakistan to China. In the end though, Peter Jacob insists that “Forced conversion remains an abuse of religion and law that needs to be tackled.”

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