As next Monday (22nd August) is the International Day Commemorating the Victims of Acts of Violence Based on Religion or Belief, Aid to the Church in Need (ACN) is highlighting the widespread problem of girls and women being abducted, abused, and forced to convert and marry.
“My sister and I had been asking for new clothes, but my parents couldn’t afford it. My mother only worked in two houses. We wanted to support our parents,” 15-year-old Saba told Catholic charity ACN.
On 5th May 2022, at 9:30 am, on her way to clean a home, she was abducted by her Muslim neighbour Yasir, a construction worker.
“He stopped the rickshaw in a street. Two others arrived on a motorcycle. He pushed aside my elder sister and pulled me inside the rickshaw. He placed a handkerchief, soaked with intoxicating chemical, on my face,” Saba told ACN.
Saba woke up in Gujrat, 130 miles northeast of Faisalabad. “I pleaded to let me return to my parents and I even stopped eating for a few days, but he didn’t give in,” said Saba.
Soon after, Faisalabad police informed her father, Nadeem Masih, a sanitation worker, that Saba had married Yasir. “The duty officer asked us to leave and wait for the Islamic marriage contract”, said Masih, who is a member of the Protestant Smyrna Church of Pakistan.
Religious minorities continue to live in fear in Pakistan where the majority of those forcibly converted are low-caste Hindus from the southern Sindh province and Christians from Punjab province. Local clerics then issue Islamic marriage contracts, formalising the victim’s marriage to their Muslim abductors. Poverty, lack of education and low social status make underage minority girls vulnerable to forced marriage and conversion.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 mandates that girls cannot marry before the age of 16 and boys must be 18 or older, and in Sindh province the local government raised the age to 18 for both sexes in 2014, making child marriage a punishable offense.
Despite this Act, age limits are routinely ignored. Furthermore, there are no age restrictions on conversion to Islam and certificates issued by religious schools or clerics are readily presented as evidence of an allegedly valid conversion. Incidents of forced conversions and forced marriages routinely receive media attention, especially when the girl is underage, but although parents may manage to lodge a case with the police, these often fail to recover the girl, and in many cases parents, out of fear, fail to go to the authorities at all.
According to the Lahore-based Center for Social Justice (CSJ), an independent research and advocacy organization, at least 78 cases of forced or involuntary conversions of 39 Hindu and 38 Christian minor girls, besides a Sikh girl, were reported in 2021 alone. By some estimates the number of forced marriage and conversion is much higher. In 2014 the Movement for Solidarity and Peace calculated that up to 1,000 may be abducted each year.
At least two important bills, the Domestic Violence Prevention and Protection Bill 2020, and the Prohibition of Forced Conversions Bill 2021, failed to become law last year, due to objections by the Council of Islamic Ideology.
In search of hope, Masih’s Catholic relatives brought the family to the Faisalabad diocesan office of the Catholic Bishops´ National Commission for Justice and Peace (NCJP), whose work is supported by ACN, where the staff documented their case and sent details to the NCJP national office in Lahore.
On 29th May, Nadeem Masih received a phone call from Yasir’s uncle, claiming that his daughter had been left near a park outside the Madina Town Police Station in Faisalabad.
“I took three local Christians as security to retrieve my daughter. We wept outside the police station. We are now awaiting Saba’s medical report from the police,” he said.
Father Khalid Rashid, diocesan director of the NCJP, called for the arrest of the perpetrator. “Yasir lived next door; Saba used to call him her uncle. His wife claimed he had married three times. She has agreed to give a police statement against him. He is a drug addict now at large,” he said.
“Success in recovering such girls is rare, people give up halfway through, but we shall never compromise on the dignity of our children. It is a blatant human rights violation by people who misuse religion,” the priest said.