At least 700 Christian and 300 Hindu girls are kidnapped and forced into marriages with Muslims every year in Pakistan. The disappearance of some, like Monica, is reported to police and eventually reaches the courts, but police have a strong tendency to side with Muslims against the often poor Christians, who can find themselves the targets of investigation if their kidnapped family members attempt to escape the marriages they have been coerced into.
In a welcome move, the regional parliament in Sindh, southern Pakistan, last week passed a law criminalising forced conversion, which will now become punishable with a minimum recommended five-year jail term.The facilitating of forced marriage where any party is the victim of forced conversion will also be criminalised, with those found guilty liable for a three-year jail term.
The legislation was proposed with the intention of protecting religious minorities, particularly under age girls from non-Muslim communities, hundreds of whom are forced to convert to Islam every year. A proposal to enact a similar law in the national parliament stalled earlier this year, with the bill now likely to be delayed at committee stage.
The Sindh Parliament has a history of passing more progressive legislation than Pakistan’s National Assembly. In 2015, Sindh passed an amendment to its Mental Health Act to allow judges to reduce sentences in “blasphemy” cases for those diagnosed with mental illness. The southern region of Sindh is Pakistan’s most religiously diverse province. According to official figures, Muslims still comprise a significant majority in Sindh (91%), but 6.5% of the population are Hindu and 0.9% Christian, although the actual number of Christians is likely to be higher than the official estimate; with the exception of Islamabad, all the other administrative areas in Pakistan are more than 97% Muslim.
Whilst the legislation passed by the Sindh Parliament, if properly enforced, is a positive step, the new laws will not protect vulnerable Christian and Hindu women and girls living in other provinces.