The Supreme Court in Pakistan has ordered the government to respond to a complaint demanding lower courts stop allowing forced conversion and marriage of minority girls in the predominantly Muslim country. The decision could make way for the country to adopt laws that would protect young girls, says a new report.
In 2021, Pakistani attorney Saif Ul Malook filed a petition with the country’s Supreme Court against Lahore High Court’s (LHC) decision to send then 13-year-old Christian girl Nayab Gill to live with her Muslim “husband”, Morning Star News reports.
Despite her parent’s plea for custody, Nayab was sent to live with 30-year-old Saddam Hayat, who was accused of kidnapping her and forcibly converting her to Islam.
Nayab’s lawyer filed a petition with the high court highlighting evidence in her case that questioned the discrepancy between the penal laws and Sharia (Islamic law) over the minimum age for girls to get “married”.
“We brought the court’s attention to the fact that courts do not admit official birth documents and supporting evidence as proof of the victim’s age. Instead, the judges accept claims of the victims that they are of majority age and can marry off their own free will,” Malook told Morning Star News.
At the time, the lower court dismissed documents that showed Nayab was 13 years old but accepted her claim under duress that she was 19 years old and had married Hayat after converting to Islam of her own free will.
“Nayab hasn’t yet been able to come out of the trauma she suffered during her captivity,” her father, Shahid Gill said. “She has told us that Saddam and his brothers tortured her and threatened her with firearms before every court appearance, which is why she was forced to give statements favorable to them.”
The Supreme Court ordered the government to respond to a petition to stop courts from allowing forced conversion and marriage of minority girls in verdicts that overlook what would be considered child rape.
Nayab’s story is not unique.
Although Pakistani law recognizes that sex with a minor with or without consent is rape punishable by death, courts have held that marriage to an underage Muslim girl is permissible because under Islamic law once the “consenting” girl has reached the age of puberty.
According to a recent report by the Center for Social Justice, a Lahore-based advocacy group, there were at least 124 incidents of forced faith conversions in 2022.
The report notes that 23 percent of girls were below 14 years of age, and 36 percent of them were between the ages of 14 and 18 years.
Malook told the outlet perpetrators force their victims to convert to Islam to escape punishment.
“Therefore, it’s important to set a uniform age for marriage across Pakistan and ensure the implementation of the child marriage laws,” said Malook.
Pakistan has the sixth highest number of child marriages in the world, where 21% of the girls are reported to have gotten married before 18 years of age and 3% before they turned 15, according to Learning Education and Research Network.
Malook tells Morning Star News that the Pakistani Supreme Court’s order to the lower courts is a move to protect young girls.
“This is the first time that the Supreme Court will speak its mind on the legal age of marriage for minority girls,” Malook said. “Previously the Islamabad High Court and Federal Shariat Court have recommended fixing the marriageable age for girls, so we are hoping that the Supreme Court will give a landmark judgment on this matter.”
Church of Pakistan President Bishop Azad Marshall said the Supreme Court decision had “rekindled hope for the protection of our young girls.”
“The police and lower judiciary are facilitating child marriages and conversions, but government officials are not willing to accept the fact that these actions are in reality a bid to cover abduction and child rape,” he told Morning Star News.
Meanwhile, Nayab’s father is thanking God for the Supreme Court’s decision.
“We praise God for appointing judges who are willing to stop these atrocities against young children,” Gill told Morning Star News. “We have suffered a lot in the last two years, but there’s now hope that Saddam [Hayat] will be punished for his crime and, more importantly, thousands of young girls will not have the same fate as our daughter.”