United Nations (UN) human rights experts have expressed dismay at the lack of protection for women and girls belonging to minority communities in Pakistan, saying that they remained vulnerable to forced marriages and conversions.

“Christian and Hindu girls remain particularly vulnerable to forced religious conversion, abduction, trafficking, child, early and forced marriage, domestic servitude and sexual violence,” the experts said in a statement issued in Geneva on Thursday.

The experts included special rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences, Tomoya Obokata; special rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children, Siobhan Mullally; special rapporteur on minority issues, Nicolas Levrat; special rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief, Nazila Ghanea.

The chair of the working group on discrimination against women and girls, Dorothy Estrada Tanck, and members of the working group — Claudia Flores, Ivana Krstic, Haina Lu, and Laura Nyirinkindi — also joined the experts in voicing concern on the situation.

The special rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the UN Human Rights Council. Special procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world.

In the statement released on Thursday, the UN experts said: “The exposure of young women and girls belonging to religious minority communities to such heinous human rights violations and the impunity of such crimes can no longer be tolerated or justified.”

They also expressed concern that forced marriages and religious conversions of girls from religious minorities were “validated by the courts, often invoking religious law to justify keeping victims with their abductors rather than allowing them to return them to their parents”.

“Perpetrators often escape accountability, with police dismissing crimes under the guise of ‘love marriages’,” they said.

The experts stressed that child, early and forced marriages could not be justified on religious or cultural grounds. They underscored that, under international law, consent was irrelevant when the victim was a child under the age of 18.

In Pakistan, the legal marriage age for girls is 16 and 18 for boys.

“A woman’s right to choose a spouse and freely enter into marriage is central to her life, dignity and equality as a human being and must be protected and upheld by law,” the experts said.

They stressed the need for provisions to invalidate, annul or dissolve marriages contracted under duress, with due consideration for the women and girls concerned, and to ensure access to justice, remedy, protection and adequate assistance for victims.

“Notwithstanding the right of children to freedom of thought, conscience and religion in accordance with article 14 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child, change of religion or belief in all circumstances must be free, without coercion and undue inducements,” the UN experts said.

“The Pakistani authorities must enact and rigorously enforce laws to ensure that marriages are contracted only with the free and full consent of the intended spouses, and that the minimum age for marriage is raised to 18, including for girls,” the experts stated. adding that all “women and girls must be treated without discrimination, including those belonging to the Christian and Hindu communities”.

They urged Pakistan to bring perpetrators to justice, enforce existing legal protections against child, early and forced marriage, abduction and trafficking of minority girls, and uphold the country’s international human rights obligations.

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