With backing from Aid to the Church in Need, Pakistan’s national Catholic Commission for Justice and Peace (CCJP) will start a campaign to protect and safeguard the rights of vulnerable girls from religious minorities.

Fr. Emmanuel (Mani) Yousaf, Director of the CCJP, said that in 2020, “One of the most noted challenges has been the recent rise in cases of abduction, forced marriage and forcible conversion. This phenomena, though not new, has catalysed during the recent past, due to the lack of adequate laws and the absence of implementation of existing safeguards to protect the young minor girls and women from the religious minority community.”

Legislation such as the 2014 Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act which is designed to prevent the marriage of kidnapped girls, by raising the bar for marriage in the state to 18, has not prevented courts finding in favour of girls’ abductors – such as in the case of 14-year-old Huma Yousef.

Following a Supreme Court decision on marriages between Muslims, judges Muhammad Iqbal Kalhoro and Irshad Ali Shah ruled in February 2020 that as Huma Yousef had converted to Islam her marriage with her alleged abductor Abdul Jabbar was valid as she had had her first period.

The CCJP initiative to protect minority girls will include consultations with politicians and other decision makers at both state and national level, promoting community awareness about the problem, and providing legal help for victims.

Fr. Yousaf said: “We at CCJP have been documenting and monitoring the incidents of abductions, forced marriage and conversion which have been found to be occurring with Hindu and Christian minor girls and also adult women. The surrounding pressure in courts from extremist groups, the biased attitude of police, the fear of harm from the abductor, and stigma associated force the victim to often give a statement in favour of her abductor.”

CCJP believes that in order to initiate and effect change, there is a need to engage both nationally and internationally to raise a voice, demand that the state takes adequate action on the said issue and also mobilise a public appeal for legislation,” he said.

According to Pakistan’s Movement for Solidarity and Peace, every year up to 1,000 Christian and Hindu girls and women aged between 12 and 25 years are abducted. But, the Movement for Solidarity and Peace have suggested that due to underreporting and problems with police, the scale of the problem could be higher.