In certain parts of Africa and Asia, girls from minority religions face the added human rights violation of being forced to change their religion in conjunction with forced marriage.
Those tragic experiences of girls as young as 12 years old often are triggered by poverty and lack of access to education, compounded by the inability of parents to stop the marriage.
The abduction and spiraling abuses all too frequently go unseen and without redress.
In Pakistan, where Shariah law permits marriage at the age of puberty, the phenomenon of forced conversion coupled with forced marriage is not uncommon.
The country lacks a uniform marriage age, which facilitates the trend of Muslim men seeking to marry young girls, many of them Christian, and in so doing, forcing their conversion to Islam.
With the girls often in the hands of their abductors at the time of legal proceedings, they fail to accurately testify as to their age, resulting in courts failing to act to return them to their parents.
Survivors of forced conversion and marriage are bravely speaking out. Pakistani Nayab Gill endured the harrowing experience at 13 years old. While making her way through school, she worked at a salon to bring home much-needed funds. In 2021, the salon owner abducted her, followed by her forcible conversion to Islam and marriage.
“Each day and every moment, I felt that I would die,” she said. When her parents went before the court to reclaim custody, it refused to acknowledge Nayab’s birth certificate, which proved that she was only 13. That was because Nayab, beaten and threatened by her captor, had stated in court that she was indeed not a minor and had agreed to the marriage.
Nayab’s case highlights the urgent need for the judiciary in areas where this problem is pervasive to be sensitized to this issue, and for judges to be trained to adequately enforce laws against child marriage.
In the case of Pakistan, further legal reforms are also needed to protect women and girls, in addition to strict adherence to existing laws, such as the law criminalizing forced marriage.
Nayab, who has since been freed, currently has a pending case before the Supreme Court of Pakistan and has the opportunity to bring about those crucial reforms. With help from the law, girls can be freed from their captors, with the goal of soon making the practice of forced conversion and marriage unthinkable.
And the phenomenon is not limited to girls alone.
Married women are far from immune to the threat of being taken for a forced “marriage” as well. A married mother of two, Saima Bibi, was pregnant with her third child when she was kidnapped by the Muslim neighbor she worked for as a maid in September 2022.
Bibi was forcibly married, tortured, locked up, and pressured to convert to Islam although she was a Christian. After some time, her husband was able to contact a lawyer who filed a suit to invalidate the marriage and to have the conversion deemed null.
In May, the court finally declared the marriage invalid and canceled the conversion certificate.?Amid hugs and tears, Bibi was reunited with her husband and children.
Girls and women like Nayab and Bibi should not have to suffer such injustice. It is imperative that governments do everything in their power to protect the most vulnerable, starting with the girls and women facing the extreme violations of basic human rights stemming from forced conversion and marriage.
These abuses can no longer go unnoticed.?The targeting of religious minorities must be prosecuted and prevented, rather than enabled by lax laws and faulty judicial systems.
The intertwined abuses of forced conversion and marriage directly violate the right to live free of violence and in accordance with the faith of one’s choosing. Every girl deserves to be protected from that dire fate.
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