Geneva: A panel of experts from the United Nations on Thursday expressed major dismay at the continuing lack of protection for young women and girls belonging to minority communities in Pakistan, the United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner said in a press statement.

The panel of experts included Tomoya Obokata, Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery, including its causes and consequences; Siobhan Mullally, Special Rapporteur on trafficking in persons, especially women and children; Nicolas Levrat, Special Rapporteur on minority issues; Nazila Ghanea, Special Rapporteur on freedom of religion or belief; Dorothy Estrada Tanck (Chair), Claudia Flores, Ivana Krstic, Haina Lu, and Laura Nyirinkindi, Working group on discrimination against women and girls.

According to the same UN press release the experts expressed concern that forced marriages and religious conversions of girls from religious minorities which have been coerced are validated by the courts, often invoking religious law to justify keeping victims with their abductors rather than allowing them to return to their parents.

The press release claimed, "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. 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.

The experts also mentioned that the "Perpetrators often escape accountability, with police dismissing crimes under the guise of 'love marriages". The UN press release also mentioned that any child, early or forced marriage cannot be justified in any case. According to international law, any consent remains irrelevant in the case of marriage, provided the victim is a minor (anyone younger than 18 years).

"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.

UN experts also highlighted the cases of forced religious conversions.

Calling out the incident of Mishal Rasheed, a young girl who was abducted at gunpoint from her home while preparing for school in 2022. Rasheed was sexually assaulted, forcibly converted to Islam and forced to marry her abductor.

They also noted that on March 13, 2024, a 13-year-old Christian girl was allegedly abducted, forcibly converted to Islam and married to her abductor after her age was recorded as 18 on the marriage certificate.

Notwithstanding the right of children to freedom of thought, conscience and religion following 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 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 said. "All women and girls must be treated without discrimination, including those belonging to the Christian and Hindu communities, or indeed other religions and beliefs," the panel of experts stated.

Conclusively, the experts called upon Pakistan to bring the 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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