Injustices faced by minority populations remain a problem around the world, ranging from the plight of migrants in western countries, to Kurdish troubles in the Middle East, to the discrimination faced by the significant Muslims minority in India.
Leaving aside the plight of sectarian and ethnic tensions, Pakistan itself has but a miniscule religious minority, protecting the rights of which should hardly pose a significant challenge for the state. Yet, our track record in this regard remains dismal. A latest “Life on the Margins” study by the National Commission for Justice and Peace, is quite perturbing as well. Over 75 per cent of the surveyed women who work reported being subjected to sexual harassment. The literacy rate of these women was found to be 10 percentage points below the national rate (57 per cent) and the infant mortality rate among them was higher than the national average. It was also disconcerting to note that nearly 62 per cent of Hindu and Christian women fear that a majority of Muslims would not come to their aid if they were being discriminated against.
These fears are substantiated considering the prevalence of forced conversions to Islam and increasing incidents of kidnappings which have instilled a deep sense of insecurity amongst our minority communities. The Human Rights Commission’s Balochistan chapter has identified an ongoing exodus of Hindu families from Quetta due to the fear of kidnappings for ransom, yet the Balochistan government does not seem to be doing much to address this problem.
NGO reports indicate that over 568 FIRs for forced marriages were lodged last year across 40 districts of Pakistan, with the majority of such cases having been filed in Sindh. While many Muslim women and girls are also forced into marriage within our country, females in minority communities are even more vulnerable to such coercion since they face a ‘double jeopardy’ of being subjected to discrimination due to their sex and religion.
The government has taken some steps for empowering minorities by fixing a five per cent quota in government jobs, reserving four seats for minorities in the Upper House and declaration of August 11 as ‘Minorities Day’. It was also encouraging to note minority rights being discussed during the recent National Assembly proceedings and acknowledgement by incumbent parliamentarians of the need for enacting legislation to better protect minority rights and to particularly curb the phenomenon of forced conversions. Another proposal which merits further political support is helping minority women feel less alienated from the country’s politics by instituting a parliamentary quota to be established to resolve this discrepancy. Yet, the inclusion of one or two reserved seats for minority women within the national or provincial assemblies will hardly be enough. Much more needs to be done to ensure protection of the minorities as it is enshrined in our Constitution.
The judiciary and the executive also need to overcome their existing complacency and take a much more proactive stance in safeguarding vulnerable minorities from blatant incidences of exploitation and violence. Moreover, the silent majority within our country must also overcome its complacency or indifference and denounce this unbearable level of intolerance. Until this occurs, the existing myopia towards vulnerable minorities will just continue spilling over to further exacerbate strife perpetuated in the name of other divergences, be they sectarian or ethnic in nature.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 26th, 2012.