Islamabad, Monday, 28 February 2022 – The National Commission on the Rights of Child (NCRC) launched its first seminal policy brief on Forced Conversions – signaling the Commission and the Government of Pakistan’s commitment to delivering child rights, including protection of minors from minority and marginalized groups.
NCRC’s Policy Brief on Forced Conversions with Recommendations After Analysis of the Arzoo Case touches upon the gaps in existing laws. The brief also puts forward recommendations for specific interventions by various stakeholders to curb incidents of forced conversions in light of the rights of minors and religious minorities.
Constituted in February 2020 under the National Commission on the Rights of Child Act 2017, the NCRC has been instrumental in advancing child rights and protection since its inception. The Commission is committed to delivering its mandate – examining and reviewing laws and policies, inquiring into child rights violations, contributing to awareness and advocacy initiatives, and researching policy matters related to child rights. Thus far, the Commission has followed up on 170+ child rights violations and issues, ranging from street children, child abuse, children in care institutes, and forced conversion cases.
Underscoring the importance of this research, the Chairperson NCRC, Afshan Tehseen Bajwa said, “The purpose of this policy brief on forced conversion is to not only bring attention to the scale of the issue but also highlight that the State, relevant authorities, federal and provincial governments have the responsibility to protect from organizations and persons trying to coerce/exploit vulnerable minors. In addition, the State also has the responsibility to provide unbiased and complete access to law and justice resources in cases of abduction and forced conversions.”
It is important to note that Pakistan has ratified the United Nations Child Rights Convention, of which Article 14 (1) states that state parties need to respect the right of children to freedom of thought, conscience, and religion. Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “the right to freedom of religion includes the right to change one’s religion and that no one shall be subject to coercion to change their religion.” Pakistan has also signed and ratified the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ratified the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), of which Article 16 confirms the right of every woman to enter into marriage “only with their free and full consent.”
Iqbal Detho, Member Sindh NCRC, emphasized that the issue of forced conversions is faced by all religious minorities in Pakistan. He emphasized Pakistan’s numerous positive obligations to ensure that Covenant rights are protected by the State. He outlined the issues related to lack of access to justice and presented the Commission’s recommendations – including, the role of government and legislative bodies; engagement with law enforcement agencies and judicial bodies; mandates of national and provincial human rights institutes; and, the partnership with civil society and media for awareness-raising.
Minority inclusion also entails religious freedom so that marginalized groups are not pressured to give up their unique identities and beliefs. Delivering minority rights is directly related to child rights and child protection where minors of religious minorities are safe. Ensuring minority protection and preserving minority identity creates a tolerant social and judicial environment, governance, and frameworks, leading to a just society where human rights, child rights, and minority rights are protected.
Input from the Speakers
Executive Director Parliamentarian’s Commissions for Human Rights, Shafique Chaudhry; Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Human Rights, Lal Chand Malhi, and National Commission on Human Rights (NCHR) Member Minority, Manzoor Masih, reiterated the need for engaging policymakers and parliamentarians to build momentum on this issue. They were of the view that it is imperative to build a critical mass of parliamentarians engaged in Freedom of Religion and Belief issues, apprise them of ongoing policy research, and build their capacity to ensure effective protection of minority and child rights by legislative and political influence.
Executive Director Parliamentarian’s Commissions for Human Rights, Shafique Chaudhry pointed out that majority of the forced conversion cases are of underage girls from religious minorities, which inextricably ties the issue with child rights and child protection. In addition, Federal Parliamentary Secretary for Human Rights, Lal Chand Malhi, highlighted the dearth of legislation regarding this matter and data collection on forced conversions.
Deputy Representative UNICEF Pakistan, Dr Inoussa Kabore, acknowledged the importance of having a National Human Rights Institute such as the NCRC for safeguarding human rights. He said, “UNICEF is working with the Government of Pakistan and the NCRC to implement child protection legislative frameworks in various provinces of Pakistan. This mechanism coordinates a government response to protect children from abuse – sexual, physical, emotional – and neglect and forced conversions. UNICEF will continue to support the Government for implementation, service delivery and recommendations.”
Echoing similar sentiments, Ahmed Quraishi, journalist and activist, said, “Forced conversions violate multiple Pakistani laws and international conventions, from rights of child to human rights, human dignity, and freedom of belief. National Commission on the Rights of Child under the leadership of Afshan Tehseen Bajwa and her team have shown courage and tenacity in producing a policy guideline on forced conversions. This will help strengthen state and national narrative on this abhorrent practice. We have a long way to go, but this is a step forward.”
In order to enhance human rights, Governments, judicial and law bodies, and the civil society should foster synergies to ensure the freedom of religion or belief. Ambassador of European Union (EU) Pakistan, H.E. Androullah Kaminara, called for an all-inclusive human rights approach in order to address the complex forms of problems that arose at the intersection between freedom of religion or belief, interfaith harmony and minority rights, “Freedom of faith and interfaith harmony are top issues for the EU, particularly the age of marriage and conversion age. The delegation of EU has increased its engagement on interfaith dialogue by bringing together religious leaders together who cosigned the need for freedom of religion. This is very much in line with Quaid-e-Azam’s vision of Pakistan. But most of all, let’s provide children a right to their childhood first in a safe and secure environment.”
Speakers at the event agreed that ensuring minority rights entails safeguarding and protecting their distinct identities – religious, gender, ethnic, cultural, gender – by law.
The Commission recommended stronger policy frameworks and increased access to law and justice in accordance with international commitments and the Constitution of Pakistan, 1973. To achieve these, the NCRC asked the media personnel, Government, and all the relevant stakeholders to recommit themselves to serve and deliver basic human dignity extending to all minorities and children in Pakistan.