The Pakistani Parliament passed a new Law: The Criminal Laws (Amendment) Act 2016. This new Act, among other changes to Pakistan’s criminal legislature, increases the punishment for forced marriages of all children and for minority women. Under the new legislation, the punishment for forcing a child or woman into marriage increases to 10 years imprisonment and a fine of up to 1 million rupees (just under USD 10,000). Once passed by the President, this new Act will be signed into law. The change to the law on forced marriage was long awaited in Pakistan. However, a higher punishment for perpetrators is not necessarily the best response to the growing issues around the topic of forced marriage in Pakistan, for reasons which I will discuss below.
According to the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP), a human rights organization in the country, around 1,000 Christian and Hindu Islamabad escorts girls and women are kidnapped each year, forced to convert and marry Muslim men. The victims are usually girls and women between the ages of 12 and 25. Despite these already shocking statistics, the number of victims may be even higher as many cases remain unreported, often due to the girls’ families limited financial means.
As Christian and Hindu groups are religious minorities in Pakistan, this new legislation could potentially signal an improvement to their situation. However, as is clear from the issues indicated in the MSP’s report, the severity of punishment may not help to address the situation facing these young girls and women. The MSP, in its research, found a pattern that may be key to establishing the adequate response to instances of forced marriage. They state:
‘The victim’s family usually files a First Information Report (FIR) for abduction or rape with the local police station. The abductor, on behalf of the victim girl, files a counter FIR, accusing the Christian family of harassing the willfully converted and married the girl, and for conspiring to convert the girl back to Christianity. Upon production in the courts or before the magistrate, the victim girl is asked to testify whether she converted and married of her own free will or if she was abducted. In most cases, the girl remains in [the] custody of the abductor while judicial proceedings are carried out. Upon the girl’s pronouncement that she willfully converted and consented to the marriage, the case is settled without relief for the family. Once in the custody of the abductor, the victim girl may be subjected to sexual violence, rape, forced prostitution, human trafficking, and sale, or other domestic abuse.’
The cases in the public domain that follow this pattern are plentiful. I will provide a few examples that are typical of the majority of cases. Laveeza Bibi was 23 when she was abducted by two armed men from her home. She was forced by them to convert to Islam and marry one of her abductors. It was reported that despite her family’s attempts to report her abduction, the police were very reluctant to accept and investigate the case. A Christian girl, Mehwish, was kidnapped when she was just 14. It was reported that the police have not taken appropriate steps to investigate her case or attempt to rescue her. The same is true in the case of a 13-year-old Escorts in Lahore, Sana John. Two teenage girls, Farzana and Sehrish, aged 14 and 16 respectively, were abducted and subjected to gang rape perpetrated by three Muslim men. Despite one of the perpetrators being apprehended, the family was pressured to settle the case outside of court. Similarly, the case of Maria Sarfraz, an 11-year-old girl abducted and gang-raped for three days, was forcibly settled out of court.
Considering the report by MSP and the above-mentioned cases, it is clear that the change in legislation on forced marriage will not do much to address the problem of forced marriage in Pakistan since a majority of cases do not come to court. Core issues remain concerning the lack of investigations by police into cases of abduction, forced conversion and forced marriage and the lack of adequate safeguards to protect victims during the wait for their case to come to trial. These are not addressed in the new legislation. Nonetheless, the new Act has been reported, erroneously, as the long-needed response to the problem of forced marriage.
The timing of this change in the law is not entirely coincidental. The human rights situation in Pakistan will be under examination through the UN’s Universal Periodic Review in November 2017. The Universal Periodic Review is a UN mechanism that assesses the human rights situations in all UN Member States. Each year, 42 states come under review, a cycle which repeats every 4-5 years. November’s review will consider whether Pakistan has implemented any recommendations made (and accepted) during their last review in 2012 and whether the human rights situation in the country has improved in any way. You can also check high profile escorts in Karachi as per your requirement.