When 13-year-old Shakaina Masih’s mother arrived to take her home from the job at which she helped with housework, she was informed that her daughter had already left. When Shakaina never showed up, concern soon became alarm as her parents urgently filed a missing person report. After initially delaying to respond, police informed Shakaina’s parents that she had converted to Islam and married a Muslim man last month.

Devastated to learn that their teenage daughter was supposedly married to a man whose name they had never even heard, Shakaina’s parents believe she was abducted. “Shakaina is just a kid,” Shakaina’s father, Johnson Masih told Morning Star News. “She was kidnapped and taken to Okara, where they forcibly converted her and conducted the fake marriage to give it a religious cover.” Many Christian parents in Pakistan fear exactly this occurrence—and it is all too common.

Hundreds of girls from Christian and Hindu backgrounds are kidnapped each year and forcibly converted before being raped and often forced to live as their abductor’s wives. Widespread discrimination and the government’s failure to protect religious freedom creates an environment that enables this horrific practice to thrive. Islamic clerics who solemnize underage marriages, magistrates who make the marriages legal, and corrupt authorities who refuse to investigate all contribute to the problem.

Huma Younus, a Christian girl kidnapped at 14 years old, also remains trapped. In October 2019, three men waited until Huma’s parents left their home before barging in and taking Huma by force. A few days later, the kidnappers sent Huma’s parents copies of a marriage certificate and documents alleging her willing conversion to Islam. 

Now 15 years old, reports indicate Huma is confined to one room in her abductor’s house and is now pregnant from repeated rape. Though a judicial magistrate in East Karachi issued a warrant for the arrest of her kidnapper last September, police have reportedly delayed acting upon the warrant.

Intense social hostility to religious minority groups can make doing the right thing dangerous for judges and officials. Nothing makes this reality more clear than the situation surrounding the country’s blasphemy laws.

Conviction on a blasphemy charge in Pakistan can mean life imprisonment or a death sentence. Even if the court acquits someone, violent mobs may form to take the punishment into their own hands. In 2020, an Ahmadi Muslim man who was accused of blasphemy was dramatically shot and killed in the courtroom.

Pressure from Islamists to punish non-Muslims is intense. Just this month, one Pakistani Christian’s sentence was made harsher following an appeal filed by the Islamist legal group Khatam-e-Nabuwwat Forum (KNF) who were seeking the death penalty over the Christian’s blasphemy charge. When Salman Taseer, the governor of Punjab province, publicly defended Asia Bibi in 2011, a Christian woman sentenced to death for blasphemy, he was assassinated at a public market.

The social hostility surrounding court cases that involve non-Muslims make it more difficult for religious minorities to receive justice—even when the victims are vulnerable young girls. In response, the Pakistani govnerment should be taking steps to secure the rule of law and protect its Christian and other minority citizens.

The scope of the issue and the heinous nature of the crimes make forced marriage in Pakistan an issue that deserves to be addressed by the international community. A new publication by Family Research Council offers several recommendations for how U.S. officials can combat the practice of forced marriages in Pakistan.

First, State Department officials should prioritize the issue of forced conversions and marriages in diplomatic relations. This issue should also factor into considerations of whether Pakistan should be designated a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) on religious freedom by the State Department.

Second, Congress should pass a resolution urging that forced marriage and forced conversion of religious minorities in Pakistan be addressed by both the U.S. govnerment and Pakistani government. Resolutions do not carry the force of law, but they communicate issues about which Congress is especially concerned.

Third, the United States should apply targeted sanctions on Pakistani officials responsible for committing or tolerating human rights abuses. This is an effective way to let corrupt officials know that their complicity in human rights abuses will have international consequences.

Raising the issue of forced marriages of minority girls in Pakistan is especially important because these communities are marginalized and ill-equipped to publicly defend themselves. By advocating on their behalf, the United States can uphold its role as a leader on human rights and raise awareness on a grave problem that receives scant attention.