Call to the Protect the Girl Child and Combat Slavery, Kidnapping, Trafficking, Forced Marriage and Religious Conversions at UNGA Parallel Event

UN NEW YORK | Friday, 13 October, 2023 – 22 million were reported trapped in forced marriage in 2021. Jubilee Campaign together with a coalition of organisations shed light on the plight of victims of forced marriage and coerced conversions, with a focus on religious and indigenous minority women and girls. 

“Child and forced marriage constitute a clear violation of fundamental human rights norms and principles,” The UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, Professor Tomoya Obokata opens with in his keynote. He shares the various factors which heighten the risk of such unlawful and inhumane marriages, including, among others: poverty, gender inequality, intersectional forms of discrimination, lack of access to education, and ineffectual law enforcement. Girls (and women) of impoverished families are often coerced into marriages with men of wealthier families; additionally, religious minority girls and women – who are dually oppressed on account of both their faith identity and gender – are vulnerable to abduction, forced marriage, and coercive religious conversions. The Special Rapporteur shares regarding the recent allegation letter his mandate together with other Special Procedures submitted to the Government of Pakistan raising concern about the reports of the impunity enjoyed by perpetrators of forced child marriage, “We are deeply troubled to hear that girls as young as 13 are being kidnapped from their families, trafficked to locations far from their homes, made to marry men sometimes twice their age, and coerced to convert to Islam, all in violation of international human rights law.” He laments that the Government of Pakistan is yet to respond to the communication. 

Joseph Janssen of Voice for Justice and Jubilee Campaign Netherlands, shares further from Pakistan citing Jubilee Campaign and Voice for Justice’s collaborative report: Conversion without Consent The report analyzes 100 high-profile cases of abduction,  coerced conversion to Islam, and child marriage of Christian and Hindu girls.  The statistics in the report are alarming: 61% of victims were found to be below the age of 16 and the average age difference between girl victims and their adult male abusers was 29.9 years. Joseph highlights how victims are subjected to further rights violations including physical and sexual abuse, forced drug and alcohol dependency, and domestic servitude; and that state actors, including the police and judiciary, are complicit in the crimes, as they refuse to or unjustly delay investigations into missing girl cases. He also shares how due to the aspect of coerced conversion – gaining a member to their religious community – they are eagerly ready to accept false documentation attesting to the victims’ fabricated ages and marital status.  During the closing discussion he makes an appeal to the Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery to visit Pakistan. 

In Egypt, over 500 Coptic Christian women and girls have been kidnapped by criminal gangs, forcibly converted to Islam, and married against their will, Caroline Doss, President of Coptic Solidarity shares. Coptic Solidarity in their report Jihad of the Womb and The Disappearance of Christian Women in Egypt documents the inaction of state authorities, including how they neglect to investigate abductions. She notes how victims and families have to resort to social media to get attention to their cases and try and find their loved one and only once there is large public pressure are the women and girls returned. There are however, concerning instances when even family members fighting for justice for their disappeared mother, sister or daughter are themselves targeted for speaking out. Caroline Doss shares about one female family member in Egypt who received threats of being the next victim after she took to social media to advocate for the return of her sister. Caroline Doss in her appeal emphasised the importance of the Egyptian government to first of all acknowledge what is taken place and then to take steps to protect the women. She shares that the Coptic community is welcoming of the women survivors of the contemporary form slavery in the form of forced marriage, providing for their physical and counselling needs. Following government acknowledgement Caroline Doss welcomes efforts to provide financial compensation to those providing for the needs of the survivors including the family and community organisations. This is a practical need states could assist with now, while working to provide robust mechanisms in place to stop the enjoyed impunity by the perpetrators.

The Special Rapporteur shares how the issue of child, early and forced marriage unfortunately is  a widespread issue which is not restricted to one geographical area and occurs, “even [..] the developed world.”  In Mozambique – reports are coming IS killing the women who they have sexually enslaved if they have aids, if not, they sell them as slaves to the Arabian peninsula. “The level of cruelty is increasing with the proliferation of the Islamic State in Africa all the way to the Philippines. It is exponential,” Marcela Szymanski with the Aid to the Church in Need [who provides legal aid for some of the women and girls], shares indignantly as she looks into her camera. She raises her concern with the size of the problem in Mozambique and urges states  – especially in developed countries – to be more responsible. She notes the laissez faire attitude of western states when it comes to forced marriages that happen outside their territory, “I would like to have some perspective – how can we make the western countries be more responsible for marriages [even those] outside their territories. Let us open a discussion for this during a next encounter and the responsibility of the west in it.”  For while the forced marriages –  contemporary form of slavery – may occur abroad the perpetrators then traffic their wives/slaves to the west. 

 Sonja Dahlmans, journalist and researcher on the topic for nearly a decade, raises the concern with the lack of reporting on these issues. One of the reasons she finds is the challenges the marginalised groups face in providing information to media outlets in the way they need, “One cannot expect marginalised and discriminated people to hand over number and statistics in the same way we do in the west.” She provides examples of challenges including the lack of rule of law and the inherent discrimination indigenous groups and religious minorities face, noting how oftentimes, “authorities in these regions do not take parents seriously and also refuse to register the missing child when the parents apply.” As a result there is only the marginalised groups word and reality against the backdrop of the large authoritarian mechanisms. This situation along with how, in Nigeria for example, the abducted women and girls are taken to the jungle, where their stories are hardly seen.  She also raises concern with the limited reporting on the long-term impacts of the abduction of women and girls and how the plight of women and girls is seen as side-effect of conflict and do not follow the women when the conflict has subsided.  She gives examples from ISIS kidnapping and sexual enslavement of Yazidi and Assyrian women and girls – where no reporting is done on what happens after the initial kidnapping and little to no  – follow-up even when the girls are freed.  She raises the lack of registration for the Yazidi children born of rape. 

How can states provide protection for the girl child when lawmakers are themselves perpetrators of child marriage?  Mariam Oyiza, women rights defender from Nigeria, notes these challenges in Nigeria where lawmakers who themselves married a child, are responsible for securing the ratification and implementation of laws to protect the girl child.  The Special Rapporteur takes note of Mariam Oyiza’s remarks of the need of a change in culture.  “We need to work with local and religious leaders to be able to influence believers to change their mindsets regarding the unacceptability of these practices. There is a deep-rooted acceptance of these practices. For my part I would like to work with governments- certain governments are more willing of course than others –  and also work with local religious leaders and groups regarding the existing international standards. Just help them understand the international norms and how to implement them, I would like to offer my services to those online and off-line. Send us the information about allegations of abductions, forced marriages and coerced conversions,” he concludes. 

“What are the most effective government mechanisms to make a difference in countries around the world?” moderator Arielle Del Turco, poses to the panel. The Special Rapporteur reiterates the need for a multi-stakeholder approach and the role of international community to support the Human Rights Defenders. “This is the government’s jobs [the protection of girls from child marriage] I am finding it quite appalling that governments are failing. You [civil society] are are often in the forefront, filling the protection gap. [..] Government has to do a lot more. As western governments, UN and UN women  part of  needs to do a better job. Western governments should be supporting grassroots workers so they can take the leadership in changing the mindset. We are here to support the local endeavours. Western governments – it is crucial – they cannot treat this as someone else’s problem, it is happening in the UK, Canada and elsewhere. […] As was raised, the media also has a role to play in raising accurate information to get each regional partner to do something. ” 

“EU has a significant role to play. Pakistan enjoys free trade to Europe. […] It is important that the EU mechanisms formally ask Pakistan regarding religious freedom and human rights violations in the country and request them to implement existing laws and to provide reports from the country on prosecutions of the perpetrators of forced conversion,” Joseph Janssen with Voice for Justice and Jubilee Campaign shares in his concluding remarks. “Where your money is your heart goes,” he says and urges that  the international community must use these tools to ask for concrete implementation of human rights, specific to the forced marriage of women and girls.