Sindh Caucus at US Congress Urge Trump to Address Human Rights during Pakistan's PM Visit
Ahead of Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan’s three-day visit to the United States this week, members of the Sindh Caucus and the Sindhi American Political Action Committee (SAPAC) expressed concerns about human rights violations in Pakistan’s Sindh Province, in a letter address to President Trump.
In a bipartisan letter addressed to President Donald Trump, 10 members of Congress urged the president to address abuses, including forced religious conversions and disappearances in the southeastern Pakistan province. SAPAC, which works to raise public awareness and advocacy about issues relating to Sindh and Sindhi people all over the world, supported the letter and emphasized “the importance of raising issues faced by Sindhis in Pakistan on an international stage.”
One of the biggest issues that has plagued the region for years is the forced conversion of Hindu and Christian girls to Islam, who are then married off to older men. In a 2018 submission from the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief (CIFoRB) to the office of High Commission for Human Rights on forced conversions and marriages, the report recognizes “the prevalence of forced conversions as a driver for forced marriages.” The CIFoRB’s report delves into the details of a typical case in which young girls and women between the ages of 12 and 15 are forcibly converted to Islam and married off after being abducted off the streets.
“The victim’s family then files a First Information Report (FIR) for abduction or rape at the local police station. The abductor, on behalf on the victim, files a counter-FIR accusing the victim’s family of harassing the willingly married and converted girl and of conspiring to convert the girl back to her original religion,” the report states. “The girl is then asked to testify in court whether she married and converted of her own free will or was abducted. In most cases, the girls remain in the custody of the abductor whilst judicial proceedings proceed, so she is often subject to further threats, intimidation and brainwashing and therefore testifies in favor of the abductor due to coercion and threats.”
The report states that these forced conversions and marriages stem from minority groups being in lower socioeconomic positions, giving them fewer resources and making them more vulnerable to predation. Other causes for targeting of minority groups is a lack of access to the justice system, and the police and court systems turning a blind eye to the issue or being influenced by external sources.
In 2018 testimony before the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs, Munawar “Sufi” Laghari, executive director of the Sindhi Foundation, described these forced conversions as “a preplanned, national conspiracy that pro-jihadis call ‘purify the land of the pure of the Hindus.’”
“As a result of social stigma and disgrace, the parents of girl victims have no option but to migrate to other countries, preferably India,” said Laghari during his testimony. “Thus, Hindu communities in Sindh are reducing in number due to these forced marriages of their young girls. To be a Hindu parent of a young girl means to write off your daughter into forced conversion and forced marriage.”
Fatima Gul, executive director for SAPAC, told Homeland411 that the lack of coverage from the mainstream media about these issues has made it harder to bring them into the public eye.
“Sometimes we run through social media, through a lot of other sources we hear about them and we try to get as much information as we can so then we can take that information to discuss these issues in these meetings in the U.S. Congress with representatives,” Gul said. “That’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to create this awareness on human rights abuses.”
Organizations such as the Movement for Solidarity and Peace and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan estimates that 1,000 women and girls are abducted each year, forcibly converted, and then married off to their abductors. However, Gul said the numbers are expected to be much higher due to the number of cases that go unreported.
The most recent case is that of 17-year-old Payal Lohana, who was kidnapped on June 29, 2019, by her teacher Kamran Soomro and is believed to have been recently forcibly converted to Islam.
Gul believes religious leader and politician Mian Mitho is behind many of these forced conversions. She says Mitho’s close relations with the Pakistani Army and Prime Minister Khan have allowed him to avoid criminal prosecution.
“Most people in [the Pakistani] government are corrupt,” Gul said. “I don’t know how Imran Khan is fighting this war against corruption—[ people] say he’s the hero and he’s going to fight the corruption—when most of the ministers in his own party are from those same corrupt parties. I don’t think anything is going to change; these are all stories [corrupt politicians] are telling.”
Despite Pakistan having a law in place criminalizing marriage before the age of 16 without both parents’ consent, the law is often ignored. The Sindh Province has its own law preventing marriage before 18 years of age, but it is also often not enforced. There is also no law against forced conversions.
According to a 2019 report from the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, in March 2017, Pakistan’s parliament passed the Hindu Marriage Bill, giving legal effect to Hindu marriages in an attempt to combat forced conversions and making polygamous marriages unlawful. Prior to the bill, Hindu women remained legally unmarried, making them susceptible to forms of forced conversion and divorce. In August 2018, the Sindh provincial parliament amended the marriage bill to allow both spouses to divorce and remarry, providing greater financial benefits to Hindu women and children.
In July 2019, the Sindh Assembly unanimously passed a resolution demanding that forced conversions and abductions of Hindu girls be stopped, and that action is taken against those engaged in such practices. But this resolution was blocked by religious parties in the National Assembly, preventing it from applying to a federal level.
Gul said this resolution could be implemented locally to the province, despite its failure at the federal level. However, she is not hopeful that this resolution will do much to help.
“I have access to common people, I hear these stories from them,” Gul said. “I am just trying to give a voice to the voiceless people, with all the limited resources that I have. And thank god I’m here, I can say whatever I want to say.”
Other Human Rights Violations
While forced conversions are major human rights violations in the Sindh Province, the region has also seen many enforced disappearances. According to the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan’s 2018 report to the European Union, there have been a total of 5,290 cases of enforced disappearances since 2011. However, similar to the forced conversions, it is estimated that the number of cases is actually much higher due to a lack of reporting from the community, fearing of becoming targets as well.
According to Gul, victims of these disappearances, who tend to be activists, writers, teachers, journalists, doctors, and even students, are kidnapped, tortured, and often die in custody if not released. Those who die usually have their bodies thrown out into the streets.
“A culture of impunity prevails from the government towards their abducting agencies,” Laghari said in his testimony. “Fear is established among people of Sindh as well as judges and lawyers who do not dare take their cases, except with few exceptions. So it is very difficult for people to talk against these enforced disappearances.”
The most recent disappearance case is that of 10th grade student Aaqib Chandio, who was abducted by strangers on the road on May 30, 2018. His whereabouts are still unknown.
Pakistan Prime Minister’s Visit
According to Reuters, the prime minister and Trump did not address human rights concerns in the Sindh region. Instead, they focused on Pakistan’s role in helping the United State reach a peace agreement with the Taliban to allow a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan.
Trump also discussed United States’ offer to potentially mediate talks over the Kashmir region between Pakistan and India. However, there were no talks about restoring financial aid to help Pakistan’s economy. Pakistan is currently already receiving aid from Saudi Arabia.