The father of a Christian girl who was allegedly kidnapped, converted to Islam and forcibly married to a middle-aged man in Ferozewala area of Gujranwala is seeking justice for his family.
Shahid Gill, who is a tailor from Arif Town, said his neighbour, S*, offered to hire his 13-year-old daughter as a salesgirl at his makeup accessories shop. However, Gill refused to send his daughter to work at S's shop.
He said that S, who is Muslim, continued to ask for help in his business, and because of his (Gill's) poor background, he subsequently allowed his daughter to work at his neighbour's store.
Gill told Dawn.com that on May 20, he found his daughter absent at home and was informed by some neighbours that the girl was seen going somewhere on a pickup truck with S and some other men and women.
He said he lodged a kidnapping complaint in Ferozewala police station and a case was registered on May 29 against S and seven others.
Investigation Officer SI Liaqat told Dawn.com that two of the suspects were taken into custody but the girl later appeared before a local court where her statement was recorded under Section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CrPC).
The girl submitted in the court that she had left her house willingly to convert to Islam and later contract marriage with S, according to the police officer.
He said the court had allowed the girl to go with her purported husband and ordered the police to quash the case, following which police had implemented the court order.
However, the girl’s father, Gill, said his daughter is 13-and-a-half years old and therefore the court should not have accepted her statement of converting and marrying willingly.
The Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 states that a marriage cannot be registered of a "child" — meaning a male who is under 18 years of age, and a female who is under 16 years of age.
A birth certificate of the girl issued by the Punjab government and shared by her family showed that she was born on October 17, 2007, meaning she is 13 as of now.
Gill told Dawn.com that after hearing his concerns, the judge had said he would go with the girl's statement.
He said S was already married and had four children including three daughters and a son.
The complainant alleged that his daughter was lured and converted and married against her will and that she might have done this under duress.
He demanded of the authorities to confirm his daughter's age from the National Database and Registration Authority (Nadra) and provide them justice.
Gill said he had also submitted another application to police to hold an inquiry into the matter.
Minority rights organisation Center for Social Justice (CSJ) had said last year that more than 160 questionable conversions of women and underage girls from religious minorities in the country had been reported in the media between 2013 and 2020.
According to CSJ data, around 52 per cent of the incidents of alleged forced conversions had occurred in Punjab, 44pc in Sindh, 1.23pc each in the federal area and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, while one case (0.62pc) was reported from Balochistan.
The Associated Press had reported in December that nearly 1,000 girls from religious minorities are forced to convert to Islam in the country each year, largely to pave the way for marriages that are under the legal age and non-consensual. It quoted human rights activists as saying that the practice had accelerated during lockdowns against the coronavirus, when girls were out of school and more visible, bride traffickers were more active on the internet and families were more in debt.
Following the publication of the report, Foreign Office spokesperson Zahid Hafeez Chaudhri had stated that there were no "institutionalised" forced conversions in Pakistan.
He said that probes into the allegations of forced conversions revealed that most of them were “fictitious, politically motivated or based on the mala fide intention of our detractors to malign Pakistan in the international community".
*Name withheld to protect privacy.