In a dark swirl of child abuse, sexism, religion, economic disparity and ineffective law enforcement, hundreds of underage Hindu girls are being forced into marriages with Muslim families in Pakistan per year.

But in the absence of mainstream media reporting and official data, the true numbers are unknown, and the issue is falling below the national radar.

The majority of cases are reported in Sindh, the province where the largest numbers of the country’s estimated 4.5 million Hindus live. There, the Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) led Sindh Assembly passed a bill to check forced conversions in November 2016, that was shot down last year.

The proposal that no person under 18 years of age should be legally allowed to convert outraged Islamist groups and the Council of Islamic Ideology deemed the bill “un-Islamic.” The chief of Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Siraj-ul-Haq pressured PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari to withdraw it.

Similarly, the Hindu Marriage Act was passed last year, which in addition to providing regulation of Hindu marriages, also addressed the issues of forced marriages and conversions. However, doubts hover over its implementation.

“The forced conversion [act] was unanimously passed in Sindh, but was sent back by the governor,” Member of the National Assembly Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, the founder and patron of the Pakistan Hindu Council, told Asia Times.

“The Hindu Marriage Act hasn’t been implemented either, and the conversions continue unhindered,” he said. “But we are working with the authorities to ensure that the issue is urgently addressed.”

Many cases, minimal data

According to the National Commission for Justice and Peace, South Asia Partnership-Pakistan and the State of Human Rights report by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, at least 1,000 non-Muslim girls are forcibly converted to Islam annually, with a significant percentage of these being Hindus.

Real numbers may be much higher. Members of the community note that an overall lack of data is due to the vast majority of cases not being reported. Families cite intimidation from Islamist groups, or societal pressures, as the primary reasons.

Even those cases that are reported to the police, or taken up in court, are rarely covered by mainstream media. It is the local Sindhi media that usually reports the forced conversion cases in the province.

Sindhi newspaper Daily Ibrat reported around 50 cases in 2018.

Kidnappings, dubious conversions, girls missing in ‘every other family’

A prominent and particularly egregious recent case was that of an 11-year-old girl, Monika Luhano, who was kidnapped from Hala town of Matiari district in October.

She was recovered from a prominent Sufi shrine at Sehwan. Her kidnapper, 25-year-old Mushtaq Mahar, claimed in court that the girl had converted, and the two were on the verge of marrying. While the girl and her family deny that she was converted, the case remains in court.

On September 25, 13-year-old Naina, a house help at Hyderabad’s Citizen Colony, went missing. A first information report was registered at Bhittai Nagar Police Station by her mother on September 28, accusing a local rickshaw driver on abduction.

After inaction on the case, the family filed a petition against the local police in the high court, where they were informed that Naina had converted to Islam and the case was closed.

The court ruled against the girl’s family in another prominent case from March this year, when 10th grade student Sohna was kidnapped from the Tando Wali Muhammad area of Hyderabad. Sohna got married to a local shop owner Shah Nawaz Shoro who produced a conversion certificate from a local madrassa in court and even filed a petition against the girl’s family for harassing the newly wedded couple.

Pir Ayub Jan Sarhandi’s madrassa in Umerkot’s Samaro town is a prominent seminary where conversions take place. Once a madrassa certificate of conversion is produced in court, even those few cases reported by families are dismissed.

Kali Mandir colony, near the Kali Mata temple, is a hub of families who have seen their young girls forcibly converted. The colony has 3,000 houses, the majority of which belong to the Hindu community, most of whom are factory workers or house helps.

In interviews with Asia Times, locals alleged that girls are missing in “every other family.”

Members of the Hindu community say the perpetrators exploit their poor economic status, the lack of protection for religious minorities, and the fact that the victims are often minors.

In many cases, economic incentives are provided to the families to marry their girls off. “If you don’t have one million rupees to pay as dowry, you can’t get your daughters married anyway,” a relative of Naina’s mother Shirimati Devi told Asia Times.

Moreover, given the Islamist laws prevailing in the country, and the persecution of religions minorities, conversion to Islam guarantees societal elevation to many non-Muslims.

Law vs. implementation

As things stand, the only law being sparingly used to challenge these conversions is the Child Marriages Restraint Act, 2013, which bars the marriage of anyone under the age of 18.

“Violence against women is something that affects all communities. Child marriages and rape victims are from all communities,” Senator Krishna Kumari told Asia Times.

“A lot of [the cases of forced conversion of Hindu girls’] come under child marriages, so the child marriage [restraint] act is applied,” she continued. “We are ensuring that the law that we have in place is thoroughly implemented as well.”

But others say implementation of the act is failing. The head of the Sindh chapter of UN Women Pakistan Kapil Dev urges the country to adopt secular legislation on marriage.

“Ideally religion shouldn’t be a barrier in marriages – there should actually be interfaith marriage laws in the country,” she said. “But under the current circumstances what is urgently needed is legislation that allows women to exercise their personal will.”

“Furthermore, even the laws in place, like the Child Marriage Restraint Act aren’t properly implemented and many forced conversion cases that could be declared null and void, aren’t,” she continued.

Krishna Kumari concedes that absent a law against forced conversions, it is pivotal that the Child Marriages Restraint Act is properly implemented.

“For girls over the age of 18, one way to ensure that they aren’t coerced into conversion is if the girl confirms the conversion in court, instead of remaining underground and confirming later,” she said. “This would ensure that the parents don’t have to worry about her safety and whereabouts, and the growing practice [of forced conversions] would be curtailed as well.”