Abduction, forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan

A serious issue for Christians in Pakistan is that every year hundreds of Christian girls and young women are abducted and forced to convert to Islam and marry their abductors. This has increased in frequency in recent years and is also an issue for Hindus. Perpetrators are much older Muslim men, often already married with children.

Pakistan’s federal and provincial governments have failed to take action to address the issue and parents often report that police do not help them to recover their daughters. Police are slow to register reports of abductions and perpetrators know that the likelihood of conviction is low. When cases come to court, judges tend to rule on the basis of Sharia (Islamic) law rather than federal law, so decisions go in favour of the perpetrators and the girls lose all contact with their families.

Typically, a Christian or Hindu teenager from a poor family goes missing and after some time her distraught family is informed that she has voluntarily converted to Islam and married her alleged abductor.

The girl is taken first to a local mosque or madrassa for conversion, a process that usually consists of repeating a simple conversion statement after a cleric – in Arabic, the declaration states: “La ilaha ill Allah, Muhammad rasool Allah” (“There is no true god but God [Allah], and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”). The girl’s age is usually entered on the conversion certificate as being over 18.  The conversion ceremony may be followed immediately by a Nikah (Muslim wedding) and if the girl is underage the marriage certificate will falsify her age. Courts often refuse to accept official documentation such as birth, baptismal or school certificates as proof of age and insist on a medical examination, which is intrusive and cannot provide an accurate result.

If a case comes to court, the girl is coerced into siding with her abductor, often through threats to kill her and her family if she does not testify that she converted and married of her own free will – her abductor may be in the courtroom when she delivers her testimony and Islamist mobs often pack the courtrooms, intimidating judges, lawyers and families, especially in lower courts.

Sometimes, a girl who testifies under duress that she converted and married of her own free will is placed in a women’s refuge or “shelter home” while the investigation is ongoing. However, the perpetrator and his supporters may be allowed access to the girl in the refuge and continue to pressurise and threaten her, and she may be put under pressure by older women in the refuge to go back to her abductor.

The religious ideology behind forced conversion and marriage is addressed in the Open Doors World Watch List 2022, which quotes a Pakistan country expert who explains: “By forcibly converting and marrying a ‘former’ Christian you receive a reward in heaven. This ideology goes hand in glove with the idea of conquering another faith group… To ensure your victory the conqueror must take the women so that they cannot live as Christian or breed more Christians. These are socially sanctioned acts of violence.”

Similarly, the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities reports, “The abductors are aware that they can always justify this criminal behaviour against the marginalised Hindu and Christian girls and women, in the eyes of not only the ordinary public but also members of police and judiciary, on the grounds of bringing a non-believer into the fold of Islam.”

Conflict between national and Sharia law

There is conflict between Pakistan’s national law and Sharia law in cases of forced marriage of minors. Under the Child Marriage Restraint Act of 1929, the minimum marriage age is 16 for women and 18 for men (except in Sindh province, where the Sindh Marriage Restraint Act 2013 prohibits marriage under 18 for females and males). Calls to raise the age for women to 18 nationally have been opposed by Islamist political parties, which say a proposed amendment to the Act is anti-Islamic.

Pakistani law deems intercourse with a girl below 16 years of age to be rape, but courts often set the legislation aside in favour of Sharia law (on the pretext that the girl has converted to Islam) under which marriage is permissible after a girl’s first period, a religious doctrine known as Balooghat (“maturity”).

Section 498B of the Pakistan Penal Code 1860 criminalises forced marriage and carries a punishment of between three and seven years in prison and a fine. It could be a potential deterrent, but this section is rarely used and some police are reportedly unaware of it.

How many abductions?

Statistics for abduction and forced marriage and conversion are difficult to arrive at and inconclusive, since many cases go unreported. The figure most commonly used in reports on the issue dates back to 2014, when Pakistan’s Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP) calculated that every year up to one thousand Christian and Hindu women and girls aged between 12 and 25 are abducted and forced to convert to Islam, almost seventy percent of them Christians. However, the MSP noted that estimates for Christian girls ranged from one hundred to seven hundred per year.

Since the MSP’s estimate was published, several observers have said they believe the number of abductions is increasing, and this is borne out by some more recent, smaller-scale studies. Open Doors’ World Watch List 2021 reported that about 1,000 Christians married Muslims against their will between November 2019 and October 2020, and the World Watch List 2022 stated that the abduction of Christian women and girls increased throughout its reporting period, particularly in Punjab province. In April 2019, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reported that in the previous year 1,000 cases of forced conversion of Christian and Hindu women had taken place in Sindh province alone.

Life changed forever

On the occasions when a girl escapes or is rescued from her abductors, the ordeal does not end with her return to family life, because she has been deeply traumatised and possibly injured, her life changed forever because of what she has experienced and because of ongoing threats from her abductor. The following three case studies outline the life-changing nature of abduction, even when the girl eventually returns to her family.

Farah Shaheen (12) was abducted from her home in Faisalabad, Punjab province in June 2020, aged 12. In December 2020, police found her chained in the home of the 45-year-old Muslim man who had abducted her. She had been repeated raped and tortured and forced to work as a slave clearing dung in a cattle yard. Farah’s father sought help from the police but it was months before they rescued her. She was placed in a refuge while the validity of her marriage was assessed and in February 2021 a court ordered that she be allowed to leave and return to her family. Her abductor and doctors who examined her insisted she was over 16, but the court ruled the marriage unlawful, saying it had not been registered properly. Farah’s abductor had threatened to kill her and her whole family, but no action was taken against him.

Maira Shabaz (14) was abducted in April 2020 near her home in Madina Town, Punjab province. Her abductor made a movie of Maira being tortured and raped and used it to blackmail her. She was forced to sign a certificate of conversion and marriage and told that if she refused her family would be killed. Lahore High Court ruled that Maira must stay with her abductor but she managed to escape in August 2020. She and her family had to go into hiding because her abductor and his supporters persistently called for her to be killed.

Arzoo Raja (14) was abducted in Karachi, Sindh province in October 2020 and was forcibly converted and married to a 44-year-old Muslim man. Following international outcry, police rescued her in November 2020 but a court ordered that she stay in a women’s refuge. In December 2021, a court handed custody of Arzoo back to her parents after she testified that she wished to return to them, but the judges ordered that she be summoned every three months to check her well-being and to confirm that she is continuing in the Islamic faith.

Parents give up hope

In many cases, because of police inaction or a court decision in favour of the perpetrator, parents give up hope of ever seeing their daughter again.

Huma Younas was abducted from her home in Karachi, Sindh province in October 2019 aged 14. A few days later her family received official documents of Islamic conversion and marriage to her abductor, and in February 2020 Sindh High Court validated her forced conversion and marriage. In July 2020, she was able to phone her parents  to tell them that she was pregnant. Asked by her father if she could leave and come home, she said she was not allowed to leave the house and was imprisoned in one room.

Shakaina Mashih (13) went missing in Lahore, Punjab province in February 2021 and her parents were shocked when police told them that she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim. Her case was closed after several hearings and her family has given up hope of her return.

UN experts call for marriage age to be raised to 18 throughout Pakistan

On 11 April 2024, UN human rights experts called on Pakistan to make legal changes to protect girls of minority faiths from forced conversion and marriage, describing them as “heinous human rights violations” and stating that “the impunity of such crimes can no longer be tolerated or justified”.

In a statement issued in Geneva, the special rapporteurs demanded that Pakistan raise the legal age for girls to marry to 18 and expressed concern that forced marriages and conversions of minors were “validated by the courts, often invoking religious law to justify keeping victims with their abductors rather than allowing them to return them to their parents. Perpetrators often escape accountability, with police dismissing crimes under the guise of ‘love marriages’.”

The UN experts pointed out that under international law consent is irrelevant when the victim is under the age of 18. They stressed the need for provisions to invalidate, annul or dissolve marriages contracted under duress and to ensure access to justice, remedy, protection and adequate assistance for victims.

The experts said that Christian and Hindu girls remain particularly vulnerable to forced religious conversion, abduction, trafficking, child, early and forced marriage, domestic servitude and sexual violence.

 In January 2023, UN human rights experts expressed alarm at the reported rise in abductions, forced marriages and conversions of underage girls and young women from religious minorities in Pakistan urged the government to “take immediate steps to prevent and thoroughly investigate these acts objectively and in line with domestic legislation and international human rights commitments. Perpetrators must be held fully accountable. We are deeply troubled to hear that girls as young as 13 are being kidnapped from their families, trafficked to locations far from their homes, made to marry men sometimes twice their age, and coerced to convert to Islam.”

The experts deplored the ongoing lack of justice for victims and stated, “Abductors force their victims to sign documents which falsely attest to their being of legal age for marriage as well as marrying and converting of free will. These documents are cited by the police as evidence that no crime has occurred.”

Sources: Aid to the Church in Need “Hear Her Cries” (2021), CLAAS-UK, Church in Chains, Christian Daily International-Morning Star News, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, UK All-Party Parliamentary Group for Pakistani Minorities “Abductions, Forced Conversions, and Forced Marriages of Religious Minority Women and Girls in Pakistan” (September 2021), World Watch List 2021, World Watch List 2022 “Pakistan Full Country Dossier