The Child Marriage Restraint Act (1929) defines a minor as "a person, male or female, who is under eighteen years of age" (§2(a).) and clearly states that “the person who contracts child marriage shall be punishable with […] imprisonment” (§4.). Despite this restriction, child marriages are prevalent in Pakistan. The rate of abductions, forced conversions and marriages of underage girls have significantly increased in the past years.
It is difficult to estimate the exact numbers of the cases of forced conversion and marriages among the Hindu community for various reasons. One is the lack of incidents’ reporting, caused mainly by the victim’s and family’s fears concerning their safety should they go to the police. Another is the lack of cooperation from the law enforcement agents and inadequate case registration, be it due to the lack of procedural knowledge or simple unwillingness to register the case properly. Although most of the cases remain unreported, GHRD has monitored numerous cases that were brought to the legal system regardless of the threats with the help of GHRD and its partners, and keeps receiving new cases almost on a monthly basis. The selected cases illustrate the susceptibility of Hindu girls in Sindh and outline the most common patterns of abductions, forced conversions and marriages, all the while demonstrating the barriers for the families to access justice.
In most of the cases the police officers refuse to register a First Information Report (FIR) or delay registering a FIR, particularly when the perpetrator is an influential member of the local community. In the rare cases when the families are, in fact, able to file an official complaint, the abductors immediately file a counter-claim on behalf of the victim. The grounds for the claim the alleged voluntary nature of the marriage and conversion, thereby accusing the family of harassing the newlyweds. The police officers themselves often tend to neglect judicial orders to take actions, delaying the already lengthy process even further and impeding the families’ ability to bring the victim home.
The period between the abduction and police intervention is crucial for many reasons. First of all, the faster the investigation is launched, the bigger the chance of returning the victim back to her family. Secondly, the longer the girls stay with their abductors, the less likely they are to speak out against them. The victims are subjected to repeated psychological and psychical violence, as well as verbal and sexual abuse. Such conditions are undoubtedly unbearable for any women, let alone children.
Proving to be a minor is another legal obstacle for the victims. Birth certificates, and other documents produced as proof of age, are generally disregarded by judges. Instead, judges require medical examinations to determine the age of the victim. Despite evidence of the victim being a minor, judges alarmingly place emphasis on the verbal consent to the marriage given by the minor victim in court. Such consent statement is given in a hostile environment with compounding pressure from the perpetrator and his family, additionally supported by extremists from the community who attend court hearings and the general population. While birth certificates are available (but ignored), the process of a medical examination delays the ability of the family to bring their children back home and further subjects the girls to abuse. The girl is usually sent to a shelter home until the medical examination has been completed.
Even though sending the girls to shelter homes seems like a fair temporary solution compared to the abusive environment they have to endure, it really isn’t: women living there claim that it is no less than a prison, as is evident from the case of Anjali Meghware. She is ordered to stay in the shelter home until she reaches the age of 18 and can legally make the decision as to where and with whom she wants to be. Anjali’s parents were officially granted permission by the judge to visit Anjali at the shelter home. However, every time they tried to visit Anjali they were denied access by the administration of the shelter home for unclear reasons.
Similarly in the Ram Pyari Oad case, in which the girl’s age was determined to be 14 through a medical examination, the victim was sent with her abductor after her “willing” conversion into Islam and subsequent marriage. The parents of Ram Piyari Oad, who were present in the court for the hearing, crying for justice, were escorted out of the courtroom by police officers.
In many cases, even when the result of the medical examination proves that the victim is under aged, the judge deems the girls to be adults, using Sharia Law as a legal basis to determine the status. Under Islamic Law one is recognized as an adult as soon as they reach puberty. This happened to Kajal Bheel, who, despite being only 12 years old at the time of her abduction, was proclaimed an adult after the medical examination concluded her age was 17. According to the Sindh Law, Kajal is still a minor, while the Sharia Law sees her as an adult. The judge made his decision based on the latter.
As of today, no perpetrators have been sentenced for the crimes they had committed. While several laws aimed at protecting girls from this horrible practice exist, the legal system fails to properly implement them, thus further contributing to the culture of impunity.
If that were not enough, in many cases the families of the victims are forced to move around (sometimes several times) to undisclosed locations due to numerous threats they receive. At some point, parents lose faith in the judicial procedure and have nowhere left to turn, leaving them with no other option than giving up on their daughters.
With the monthly reports of new abductions and conversions coming in, the question remains: why has the State never taken any action towards protecting its children?