Parliamentary Inquiry into Abduction, Forced Conversions and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Girls and Women in Pakistan
Conducted by Rt Hon Jim Shannon MP, Rt Hon Marie Rimmer MP and Lord Alton
Terms of Reference
1. According to unverified reports, about 1,000 girls and women from religious minorities, mainly Christian and Hindus, are abducted, forcibly converted and forcibly married in Pakistan, each year1. These reports further suggest that some of the victims are divorced and abandoned after a few years, and others are trafficked for sexual exploitation. The problem is growing and requires an urgent investigation and inquiry.
2. In order to prevent child marriages, a number of laws have been enacted in Pakistan. The legal framework includes the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 of Pakistan which is intended to prevent child marriages. In addition, in Sindh, the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2014, raised the legal minimum age of marriage for boys and girls to 18. According to this law, a person above 18 years, who contracts a child marriage, can be imprisoned for three years. In another major province, Punjab, the Punjab Marriage Restraint Act 2015 kept the legal age of marriage at 16 years2. In 2018, the chairman of the Council of Islamic Ideology announced that a nikah (Islamic marriage) can be performed at any age but the couple can only live together after the age of 18.3
3. Pakistan is also a party to several international treaties that impose duties upon Pakistan to protect the girls from such abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages. Pakistan has ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, according to Article 1 of which, a child means every human being below the age of eighteen years unless under the law applicable to the child, majority is attained earlier.4 Article 14 of the same treaty specifies, “States Parties shall respect the right of the child to freedom of thought, conscience and religion” 5. The UN Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women, also ratified by Pakistan, specifies that state parties need to respect the right freely to choose a spouse and to enter into marriage only with their free and full consent (Article 16).6
4. Most of the victims’ families come from extremely poor background and are often illiterate. This may affect their ability to seek help and justice for the abducted girls.
5. Apart from the laws, the law enforcement system also poses challenges to the families seeking help. According to reports, the police often either refuse to record a First Information Report (FIR), the first and most important document in the criminal justice system in Pakistan, or record it as less serious offence which in turn means that the parents, are not able to pursue the cases in courts.
6. These abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages have long-lasting and profound effects not only on the lives of girls, but also whole communities. The parents, once they hear of such cases try to restrict their daughters’ freedom to attend schools. Sometimes they might also opt for an early marriage, to prevent such abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages. The early marriage deprives the female of education, economic opportunities, social advancement, and good health. This results in the vicious circle of limited education, early marriage and children, family poverty and resulting need for children to go to work rather than attend school.
7. In 2019, after a visit to Pakistan, the APPG for Pakistani Minorities published a report and identified the issue of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages as one which needed urgent attention, and made several recommendations which could alleviate or seriously reduce this problem. 7 However, the Government of Pakistan has failed to take any serious initiatives to tackle the problem. Recently, and during the Covid-19 pandemic, the problem has worsened, with an increase in abductions of girls as young as 12-14.
8. The horrific consequences of these practices was recently illustrated by the case of a 13-year-old girl, Arzoo Raja, who was abducted, forcibly converted, and forcibly married, to a man over 30 years older than Arzoo. This act of violence against a young woman is a gross violation of her human rights and has rightly been condemned in Pakistan and by the international community. Sadly, it is a case among many. Arzoo’s plight has underlined the urgent need to create a greater legal capacity to defend women’s rights, to strengthen the law, and to provide practical help and support to victims. Hence the need for this Inquiry.
Aims of the inquiry
9. The aim of the Inquiry will be to:
The issue of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages
I. analyse the scope of the issue and whether such abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages are a problem of religious minority girls only, or a problem affecting all girls;
II. map the effects of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages on the girls (their mental, emotional and physical health), their families and whole communities;
III. map how this practice affects the victim’s education, future jobs opportunities, social status and their future within their community;
The problems with the laws and their implementation
IV. identify the weaknesses and limitation in the existing laws;
V. identify the problems with implementation of existing laws in Pakistan which should prohibit or restrict marriages of underage girls;
VI. identify legal and other solutions which could be adopted to prevent abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages
VII. make recommendations to the Pakistani government, as well as the UK government, to combat this practice.
“Nobody should ever feel forced or coerced into unwanted marriage or religion, nor should the already oppressed and marginalized religious community’s most vulnerable members – girls, be sexually exploited. This inquiry will help to identify the weaknesses in law and in the implementation of law, and recommend practical solutions, which could help to minimize, if not completely eradicate this problem.” – Rt Hon Jim Shannon MP
Evidence gathering and timetable
10. The evidence gathering process will include an open call for written evidence and oral hearings. The written evidence should be sent by 31 January 2021. A panel will then hear oral evidence from 1 – 28 February, and publish its findings and recommendations in Spring 2021. Evidence will be gathered from relevant stakeholders, including: non-governmental organisations, faith-groups, experts, and victims and their families (where safe and appropriate).
11. Anyone with relevant information wishing to submit written and oral evidence to the inquiry should address the following questions in their submission:
Human Rights Organisation/NGOs/Faith groups, Experts
I. Name and organisation? What is the nature of your work on the topic? Do you work with the victims and their families? How many victims or their families do you work with? What assistance do you provide?
II. What, in your opinion, are the weaknesses and limitations of the existing laws?
III. What, in your opinion, is the problem with implementation of the existing laws that should have protected the victims?
IV. How, in your opinion, could the Federal and Provincial Governments improve the laws to eliminate the issue of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages?
V. How could the efficiency of the law enforcing authorities be improved?
VI. Are the shelter homes suitable and safe for the victims to be placed there, and do they provide any counselling, or treatment?
VII. What, in your opinion, are the effects of such abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages on a) the victims and b) their families?
VIII. How the UK’s significant aid programme to Pakistan could be used to help address this challenge?
IX. How can the Home Office be persuaded that the presumption in any such victims case, if applying for asylum in the UK, should be that they have been persecuted for their faith?
Victims and their families
I. Information about the particular case of abductions, forced conversions and forced marriages.
II. What was your experience of engagement with the police like?
III. Was any legal recourse undertaken, if so, what hurdles if any, did you face?
IV. What was the conclusion of the case?
V. What was the effect of the whole experience on you and your family?
12. Responses should be emailed to email@example.com. Any postal evidence should be addressed to: Morris Johns, APPG for Pakistani Minorities, c/o Lord Alton, House of Lords, Palace of Westminster, London SW1A OPW. The word limit for submissions is 1500 words. The deadline for written submissions to the inquiry is 31 January 2021. Suitable arrangements including anonymity, will be made for those wishing to give oral evidence.