LAHORE, Pakistan (RNS) — Sixteen-year-old Suneeta and her 12-year-old sister were walking home in March when they were kidnapped.
The men who took them forced the girls to convert to Islam.
“We were walking back to our house after working on the farm when men in a car came out of nowhere and dragged us in with them,” said Suneeta, who is Hindu and lives in Badin, a small city in the south of Pakistan. “The next thing we knew, we were in a shrine being forced to say the kalma (acceptance of Islam) by a cleric.”
The men who kidnapped the girls told their mother to pay the equivalent of $365 — an enormous amount for the poor farming family — or the men would marry off the girls.
Their mother begged and borrowed from within the Hindu community and paid the ransom. She got her girls back.
The family considers itself lucky.
Every year, thousands of Hindu and Christian girls and young women are kidnapped in Pakistan and forcibly married, disappearing from their families. And while these forced conversions have been going on for decades, a recent surge in reported cases has brought the issue back into the limelight.
Around 1,000 cases of Hindu and Christian girls being forced to convert were estimated in the province of southern Sindh alone in 2018, according to the annual report of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan.
There are no concrete numbers for the rest of the conservative country, which is around 96 percent Muslim.
“This appears to be a systematic, organized trend and it needs to be seen in the broader context of the coercion of vulnerable girls and young women from communities that are already marginalized by their faith, class and socioeconomic status,” said Mehdi Hasan, chairperson of the independent Human Rights Commission of Pakistan. “The ugly reality of forced conversions is that they are not seen as a crime, much less as a problem that should concern ‘mainstream’ (Muslim) Pakistan.”
In the majority of these cases, the girls are under 18. And while marriage under the age of 18 is illegal in Pakistan, the law is often ignored.
Meanwhile, there is no law banning forced conversions.
Child advocates say there is a clear lack of will by the government to tackle the problem.
“The government has done little in the past to stop such forced marriages,” the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan said in its annual report. "(The executive branch) asked lawmakers to pass effective legislation to end the practice," the report added, but nothing happened.
Meanwhile, the parents of victims are often ignored by authorities and have few options, say civil rights activists.
“Injustice is being done … and there is no one here to listen to these poor people,” said Veeru Kohli, a human rights activist based in Sindh. "I’ve lost count of the number of cases that have come up every month.”
One case that made it to court was that of Shalet Javed, 15, a Christian from the city of Faisalabad in the east of Pakistan, who was kidnapped, raped, forcibly converted and married to a Muslim man in February.
"They forced me to become Muslim and married me off to a man named Zafar,” she told the Lahore High Court in April during a hearing on a complaint of kidnapping filed by her father, Javed Masih. "I ran off from the house where they kept me, and now I want to live with my parents.
“I am still a Christian,” she added.
Locals from Sindh province say that one reason the practice not only persists but is escalating is that powerful officials run the Muslim shrines and seminaries where Muslim clerics are converting and marrying off these girls.
They are shielded by the government, which is afraid of upsetting them in the tense, often volatile environment of Pakistani politics, in which an attack on a religious figure is seen as an attack on Islam and liable to draw out extremists.
Kohli, meanwhile, said the conversions operate like a factory assembly line.
“With the number of cases and with the impunity these cases have, it is evident that the forced conversions (are) a business being run like a factory,” she said.
Mian Abdul Haq, also known as Mian Mitho, a local political and religious leader in Sindh, is allegedly responsible for numerous forced conversions of girls, according to victims' families and activists.
Speaking about a recent case in which two Hindu sisters, Reena Meghwar, 12, and Raveena Meghwar, 14, were abducted, converted and married off to Muslim men in Ghotki in Sindh, he said the girls voluntarily switched faiths.
“They wanted to convert, it was their own free will, and there is no point in stopping those who want to embrace Islam,” said Mitho.
Mitho denied accusations that Hindu girls are being targeted for conversion.
“Boys also convert, there are entire villages that convert," he said. "This is just a conspiracy against Islam that Hindu girls are being forced to convert. They all convert on their own.”
Meanwhile, the case of the Meghwar sisters has ignited a debate across Pakistan about the issue.
After the girls were taken, their father, Hari Daas, tried in vain to get authorities to act. When that failed, out of frustration, he tried to burn himself alive in protest but was stopped before he could do serious injury to himself.
The government reacted, filing a complaint on kidnapping charges. However, when the girls were brought to the court with their husbands, they gave statements saying they married and converted without coercion.
The Islamabad High Court sent the girls home with their husbands.
“This is where the problem lies — girls in all these cases are threatened, and they will only give these kinds of statements," said Kohli, who also said courts are not enforcing laws barring underage marriage.
“These so-called marriages are illegal and so are the conversions,” Kohli added.
As a result of the kidnappings and conversions, thousands of Hindus seek asylum in India every year. Others are thinking about it.
“We were saved once from the abduction but I am afraid that it will happen again to us," said Suneeta, the 16-year-old who was kidnapped with her sister. “What if this time they come for us and there is no one to bring us back. We are not safe here in our own country.”