KARACHI: For the first time in the country's history, marriage laws for millions of Hindus living in Sindh have been codified after the Sindh Assembly approved the Hindu Marriage Bill, 2016, on Monday.
Senior PPP leader and Sindh Minister for Law and Parliamentary Affairs Nisar Ahmad Khuhro moved the bill in the provincial assembly which was later passed after a debate between the opposition and treasury benches.
The bride and groom cannot be less than 18 years, according to the text of the approved draft.
Married couples will be required to obtain a marriage registration certificate, while a couple can also face fines in case their marriage is not registered. The law can be applied retroactively to existing marriages.
Zoroastrians and Sikhs will also be able to register their marriages under the new law.
Hindus, despite being the second-largest religious minority group in Pakistan, with a population of 3.3 million, had no legal mechanism to register marriages.
Unlike the Muslim majority or Christians, Hindus lacked any legal framework for protection of their marriages and are unable to provide legal proof when required.
Christians, the other main religious minority, have a British law dating back to 1870 regulating their marriages.
Without the law, Hindus say their women were easy targets for rape or forced marriage and faced problems in proving the legitimacy of their relationships before the law. Widows have been particularly disadvantaged.
Without official proof of relationships, getting government documents issued or moving forward on any other activity which involves documentation — from opening bank accounts to applying for visas — became next to impossible for any citizen.
After the 18th Amendment, the issues of religious minorities and their family matters became provincial subjects but the Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies passed resolutions allowing the federation to legislate Hindu marriage law.
A similar resolution is pending in the Punjab Assembly.
A draft bill has already been passed by the National Assembly standing committee on law and justice, while Senator Nasreen Jalil, the chairperson of the Senate standing committee on law and justice, has also convened a meeting of the committee to take up the matter.
A clause in the draft Hindu Marriage Bill, which states that a marriage will be annulled if any of the spouses converts to another religion, is being vehemently contested by both its opponents and supporters.
Clause 12(iii) says a marriage will be annulled if any of the spouses converts to another religion
The patron-in-chief of Pakistan Hindu Council, PML-N MNA Dr Ramesh Kumar Vankwani, said the matter related to the basic human rights of the Hindus in Pakistan.
“There are fears the clause would be misused for forced conversions of married women the same way young girls are being subjected to forced conversions.”
He referred to the current practice by certain elements who kidnapped teenage girls and eventually presented them in courts along with a certificate that the girl had married after converting to Islam.
PPP parliamentarian Senator Taj Haider opposed the idea in the law, and said the clause could also discourage cross-marriages.
The US Commission on Religious Freedom said in a recent report that conditions in Pakistan had “hit an all-time low” and governments had failed to adequately protect minorities and arrest those who attack or discriminate against them.
But many see the passage of the bill as a ray of hope.
“Now after the passage of this bill in the Sindh Assembly, after 70 years, Hindus will also have a marriage certificate just like Muslims do,” said Shahnaz Sheedi, the coordinator for South Asia Partnership Pakistan, a civil rights movement.
“We hope that bill will be soon adopted at the national level,” she said. The National Assembly in Islamabad has been considering such a bill it is still in committee.