Sexual Exploitation of Religious Minority Girls in Pakistan: Long-term Change Needed to End the Vicious Cycle of Early Forced Marriages and Conversions

On 22 December 2021, Karachi high court allowed Arzoo Raja, a minor Christian girl to return to her parents after spending a year in a shelter home. In October 2020, she was forcibly converted to Islam and was married off to a 44 year old Muslim man Ali Azher. While this was welcome news, reading through the court judgement, there is a lot left unsaid.

Voice for Justice who reported the release to Jubilee Campaign has expressed concern about the case and the discriminatory application of Pakistan’s laws in favour of the Muslim majority:

Voice for Justice is glad the see that Arzoo Raja has returned home. We do however want to highlight […] Even though it is not clear from law, often the court decides that a minor cannot change their religion. Arzoo should not have been allowed to change her religion under these circumstances at such a young age [according to the courts’ jurisprudence].

Despite Courts usually discounting a minors’ conversion, the judge upheld the conversion of Arzoo even if it occurred when she was forcibly separated from her family. The court went further, by putting systems in place to ensure the parents do not “pressurise her to change her religion from Islam.” A Voice for Justice representative shared the following:

In the court, a clear sentiment was felt that had Arzoo decided to become a Muslim she should remain one. Even the court was addressing Arzoo by her Muslim name, Arzoo Fatima. The one that was given to her when she was converted at the age of 14 when marrying Ali Azher, a much older Muslim man.

The UN Special Rapporteur on the sale and sexual exploitation of children, Mama Fatima Singhateh, has been very clear that conversion under duress is a human rights violation which, “not only affects the child psychologically and emotionally but […] is also disruptive to religious harmony and peaceful co-existence within communities.” The Voice for Justice representative present during the court hearing shared the following:

“There was an intense religious sentiment in which Muslims were trying to ensure that Arzoo remained a Muslim and it was ensured that her family would not try and convert her back to Christianity.

The opponent lawyer pleaded in court that Arzoo should not return to her parents because they were Christians. It was reported that the opponent lawyer verbally attacked the family and lawyer of Arzoo outside the court  trying to turn public sentiment against the Christians. A threatening situation.

The court ordered the parents of Arzoo to file a PR Bond of 25,000 Pakistani Rupees, a bond reserved for suspects in criminal cases. The court also ordered the parents of Arzoo to visit the Station House Officer [SHO] every three months – that is four times a year – until Arzoo is 18, to “certify whether or not she is being well-treated by her parents in terms of the order of this Court,” which in between the lines implies that the Court wants to ensure she does not convert back to Christianity, according to the Voice for Justice representative who attended the hearing:

The judgement clearly tries to satisfy Islamic sentiment that Arzoo should remain a Muslim and only then is released. She has to report to the police every three months to check whether she remained a Muslim. It is not possible for Arzoo to report to the police stating that she has converted back to Christianity since that is considered apostasy and is very dangerous.

– Voice for Justice representative who attended the hearing.

No compensation has been awarded for Arzoo or the family from the state or perpetrator to ensure redress for the human rights violations. According to the Office of the Commission on Human Rights’ Guidelines for Action on Children in the Criminal Justice System (recommended by Economic and Social Council resolution 1997/30 of 21 July 1997):

Access should be allowed to fair and adequate compensation for all child victims of violations of human rights, specifically torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment, including rape and sexual abuse, unlawful or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, unjustifiable detention and miscarriage of justice. Necessary legal representation to bring an action within an appropriate court or tribunal, as well as interpretation into the native language of the child, if necessary, should be available. 

[our emphasis]

The lack of compensation by the government and the perpetrator for Arzoo and the treatment of the parents of Arzoo as suspects – shows that there is little sympathy for the victim in the system. The Court has not provided any reasoning or evidence to account for or justify their treatment of the parents as a suspect and guilty party in the case. The court only refers to Arzoo’s statements, following the forced marriage, that she did not want to return to her parents. The Government of Pakistan and law enforcement have chosen to side with the persecutors instead of standing up for the rights of the individual. In a recent USCIRF Spotlight Podcast episode, Senior Policy Analyst Niala Mohammed, shared the need for Pakistan to repeal its blasphemy laws and cease from appeasing Islamist voices.

The Government of Pakistan […] needs to curb hard-line extremist organizations and individuals from promoting sectarian violence,
exacerbating existing prejudices and inducing fear amongst religious minorities. Extremist rhetoric, put forth by organizations where individuals such as TLP, or government organizations, or politicians, or clerics, often proceed in attacks on religious minorities. We’ve seen this time and time again.

Niala Mohammed, USCIRF Research Analyst

The Government of Pakistan also held Arzoo Raja detained for a whole year separated from her family. As mentioned earlier, the Court never explained satisfactorily why it was in the best interest of Arzoo that she should be separate from her parents. International law requires “special justifications and protections” in all cases of detention of children, stating that the detaining authority must be able to demonstrate that the detention is in the “child’s best interests.” It must also be able to demonstrate, that there is no “reasonable alternative” to detention.

The Court decision to return Arzoo back to her family is good news but the judgement does not satisfy the underlying injustices suffered – the sexual exploitation and rape of a minor. Nor does it investigate the circumstances of Arzoo’s conversion, giving perpetrators the green light to use religious conversion to Islam to gain societal support for their sexual exploitation and a new legal system to bar or at least complicate the process for the religious minority family to be able to seek expedient redress.

There is often no investigation into the circumstances under which the conversions take place and the ages of the girls are ignored during trial proceedings. The girls involved are largely left in the custody of their kidnappers throughout the trial process, and therefore they are subject to further threats to force them into denying their abduction and rape, and force them into claiming that their conversion and marriage were voluntary.

Jubilee Campaign report, Abduction, Conversion and Child Marriage of Religious Minority Girls in Pakistan

Jubilee Campaign together with Voice for Justice released a report in November 2020 addressing the abduction, forced conversion and early marriage or religious minority girls in Pakistan. The report makes several recommendations on how to stem these abductions one being the importance of the media and the need for the local media in Pakistan to report from a victim-focused approach.

The reported abduction cases and forced conversions of religious minority girls – when covered by local or provincial media in the urdu language – remove the forced conversion aspect and often the age of the girl altogether. They, for example, mention that a girl has willingly converted to Islam and chose to marry her new husband. Nothing is mentioned regarding the cries for help from the girl’s parents, and sometimes the age of the girl and her new husband are left out. The news reports, therefore, fail to question the legality of such forced conversions.

There are many reasons for the local media excluding these significant details when reporting on forced marriage and conversion cases. Two of the key reasons is first, the evident bias of media and reporters for Islam, and; two, journalists and media’s fear of threats from influential local religious leaders should they investigate and/or publish reports of forced conversion and marriage, as often it is these leaders who approve the marriages and conversions.

The report also makes the following recommendations:

  • Following the recovery of a girl from an abduction, forced conversion to Islam, and/or child marriage, the girl should be taken to a safe house to ensure she is able to provide a true, uncoerced testimony of events without fear of retaliation from her abductor.
  • A specially trained and appointed taskforce should conduct proper and objective investigations regarding the circumstances surrounding the girl’s conversion and marriage. • Allow for the presence of a minority representative or ombudsman to review the case.
  • Train judges to interpret laws in accordance with international human rights norms and legislation.
  • Ensure that secular laws which set the minimum legal age for marriage to 16 or 18 years preside over Islamic laws that allow for marriage as soon as puberty is reached.
  • Create an appeal or reporting mechanism to flag judges, police officers, religious institutes, Muslim clerics, and official actors who discriminate against, violate rights of, or fail to protect religious minorities in cases of abduction, forced conversion, and child marriage. 

In the case of Arzoo the court has considered the marriage illegal and Arzoo’s persecutor is facing a criminal trial under the Sindh Child Marriage Act but if the decision results in a sentence remains to be seen. Voice for Justice shared that Mr. Azher – the abuser – has already been released on bail. This decision contrast greatly to they way Arzoo Raja – the victim – was treated, the authorities did not let her see her family for a year and now are forcing the family to report to the police every three months. Pakistan has signed and ratified both the International Covenant on Civl and Political Rights and the Convention on the Rights of the Child, moreover Pakistan is a member of the Human Rights Council and have themselves pledged to some of the above recommendations:

Pakistan makes the following voluntary pledges that it will:


(l) Continue to protect the rights of minorities and promote further interfaith harmony;


(i) Continue to provide capacity-building, training programmes and education related to human rights to parliamentarians, law enforcement officials, judges, public prosecutors, lawyers, civil servants and the media;


(q) Continue to undertake meaningful measures to prevent the sexual exploitation and abuse of children;

Excerpt from Pakistan voluntary pledges and commitments when applying for the Human Rights Council for the term 2021–2023 (A/75/119)

We know that the early and forced marriages of children is a violation of human rights. It prevents children from living their lives free from all forms of violence with wide ranging and adverse consequences, because child marriage disproportionally affects girls.

– Justice Mama Fatima Singhateh