Islamabad, Pakistan – A teenage Hindu girl was killed last week in Pakistan’s southeastern Sindh province after she resisted abduction for alleged forced marriage and conversion, prompting fear among the country’s minority community.
The family of Pooja Kumari, 18, described her as a girl full of life, often seen stitching traditional garments at their home in Rohri town in Sukkur district, some 470km (292 miles) north of the port city of Karachi, the provincial capital.
Kumari’s uncle Odh, whose first name Al Jazeera is not using due to security concerns, said she was often harassed by Wahid Bux Lashari, a member of the powerful Lashari tribe. Lashari, 24, had threatened Kumari with forced marriage earlier this month.
Her family said they approached the local police who “showed no interest” in helping the family against the powerful landowning tribe.
A week later on March 21, Lashari showed up again along with two associates and broke into the girl’s house. When Kumari resisted abduction, Lashari allegedly fired his gun.
“They shot her dead on the spot,” Odh told Al Jazeera. “She [Kumari] preferred resistance and death instead of marrying the abductor out of her faith.”
Police arrested Lashari and the two associates on the night of March 21 after the incident caused outrage on Pakistani social media.
“Mr Lashari and two others were arrested for their involvement in the murder,” local police official Bashir Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “The prime suspect has even confessed to the crime.”
Rights groups say Kumari is among nearly 1,000 minority girls forcibly married or converted to Islam – or both – every year in Muslim-majority Pakistan.
“Forced conversions are against the teachings of Islam and we are committed to ensure justice and peaceful environment for minorities. We will take serious action against the culprits and ensure protection to the family of [the] victim girl,” Hafiz Tahir Mehmood Ashrafi, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on religious harmony and Middle East affairs, told Al Jazeera.
According to the 2017 census, Muslims make up 97 percent of Pakistan’s population while Hindus are around 2 percent, an overwhelming majority of them – close to 90 percent – residing in Sindh province bordering Hindu-majority neighbour India.
Last year, the United States placed Pakistan on a list of “countries of particular concern” for religious freedom violations.
Activists say some victims of forced marriage or conversion are as young as 12.
In 2019, Khan’s government ordered an investigation into forced conversions after two Hindu sisters were allegedly kidnapped and forced to convert to Islam – a case that triggered a controversy with India.
A Pakistani court later ruled that the two sisters had converted voluntarily.
Activists say a lack of legislation aimed at safeguarding minority rights has made the situation difficult for Hindu and Christian girls.
In October last year, a parliamentary committee rejected an anti-forced conversion bill after the Ministry of Religious Affairs opposed the proposed law despite protests by legislators belonging to minority communities.
In 2016, Sindh province passed a law declaring forced conversion a punishable offence carrying a life sentence, but the region’s governor refused to ratify the legislation.
Meanwhile, minority groups in Pakistan have been protesting against forced marriage or conversion of girls belonging to their communities.
“Forced conversion is a very serious and becoming a chronic issue for the country, but unfortunately all the major political parties till now have failed to legislate on this important issue,” Kapil Dev, a rights activist belonging to the Hindu community, told Al Jazeera.
“She [Kumari] would have been another victim of forced conversion, if she had not resisted her kidnapping.”
Dev said the government should “think seriously on this issue” and bring a bill to stop the “heinous act sooner than later as these incidents not only bring a bad name to the country but also to the faith of the majority people”.
Dev pointed out the “lack of interest from political parties” that he said cave in to right-wing groups when a bill to stop the practice is presented in a state or national assembly.
Legal experts also say there is no existing law to stop forced conversions in Pakistan.
“Despite the surge in forced conversions, federal and provincial governments have not shown appropriate resolve to tackle this grave constitutional violation. The government, despite having a parliamentary majority in the national assembly, did not take this bill to parliament,” lawyer Osama Malik told Al Jazeera.
“Similarly, the provincial government of Sindh refused to legislate on this matter twice.”