Holi, the Hindu festival of colours steeped in ancient legend, celebrates the coming spring as winter ebbs. On March 20, while the local Hindus in Sindh’s Ghotki province of Pakistan delighted in the religious revelries, two sisters were allegedly abducted from their home.
Raveena and Reena Meghwar, said to be 12 and 15 respectively, came from a poor, working-class family from Daharki – a region notorious for underage Hindu girls being kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and married off to grown men. When their father discovered that they were missing, he immediately launched a search of the entire area with their two brothers. Desperately, they also checked local hospitals and the police station. By the time morning had broken, there were still no signs of the girls.
The following day, a video emerged of the girls with a maulvi or an Islamic preacher, who laid claims that the sisters walked to Dargah Bharchundi Sharif in Daharki of their own accord. The maulvi said that the sisters wished to convert to Islam but ‘were not afforded the opportunity’. As such, he said that the girls had accepted the religion, consequently making them the responsibility of all Muslims. Flanked on either side of them were their new husbands – both of whom it was later revealed were already married. The priest stated that the girls were married of their own free will.
Another video followed suit, which promptly went viral, showing Raveena and Reena’s father, sitting on the ground outside of the police station, distraughtly thrashing himself and asking for someone to shoot him.
Seven people were arrested in connection with the girls’ disappearance, including the cleric and the husbands’ families, with an investigation pending.
The girls, however, filed a court petition claiming that they were over 18 and had converted to Islam and married of their own free will. They also declared that they were fearful of their family who they said had harassed them, and as such, requested protection from their relatives.
The case has highlighted a long-running quandary for Pakistan’s Hindu community. Underage girls are frequently kidnapped, forced to
convert, and are married to older men. The union is then used as a legal cover-up, since the girls are threatened that either they or their families will be hurt if they do not corroborate to make false statements. This protects their abductors and prohibits the girls from being rescued.
Under Pakistani law, marriage to a girl who is underage is not invalidated if it is her claim to have done it willingly – even if she is a minor. Additionally, in rural communities, there is often no evidence to determine the girl’s age.
The Pakistan Hindu Seva Welfare Trust told TOI that the birth certificates of the girls that were issued by the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) were deliberately being ignored. And instead, a new medical certificate from a hospital claims that Raveena is 19-years-old and Reena is 18-years-old.
In his report, “Forced Conversions & Forced Marriages In Sindh, Pakistan”, Reuben Ackerman states, “In most cases the victim is abducted and is then subjugated to sustained emotional and physical abuse often involving threats of violence towards their loved ones…
“Minorities often do not receive the protection required from state institutions and lack access to justice. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan reports that the police often turn a blind eye to reports of abduction and forced conversions thereby creating impunity for perpetrators. The police will often either refuse to record a First Information Report or falsify the information, thereby denying families the chance to take their case any further. Both the lower and higher courts of Pakistan have failed to follow proper procedures in cases that involve accusations of forced marriage and forced conversions.
“The judiciary are often subject to fear of reprisal from extremist elements, in other cases the judicial officers’ personal beliefs influence them into accepting the claims made that the woman/girl converted on her own free will. There is often no investigation into the circumstances under which the conversion takes place and the age of the girl is often ignored. The girl/woman involved is largely left in the custody of her kidnapper throughout the trial process where she is subject to further threats to force her into denying her abduction and rape and claiming that the conversion was willing.”
Pakistan ratified both the Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which states in Article 16 that women have the right to marry “only with their free and fill consent.” The country also ratified the United Nation’s Child’s Rights Convention (UNCRC) which stipulates in Article 14 that children’s right to religion, thoughts, and refusal to do things which they object to for moral reasons, should be respected.
It is estimated that every year, around 1000 women and girls from minority religious groups are kidnapped, forced to convert to Islam, and subsequently married to their kidnappers. Furthermore, 20 or more Hindu girls continue to be abducted every month — with no escape, even if the case does go to trial.