Illustration by Marium Ali
Illustration by Marium Ali

Over the last couple of months, several Chinese nationals have been arrested from the central regions of Pakistan for allegedly trying to smuggle local girls to China. They reportedly got into staged marriages with those girls – many of whom belong to the Christian community – so that they could be taken out of Pakistan allegedly for use in sex trade. Those arrested include some Pakistani matchmakers and pastors who, respectively, facilitated and reportedly solemnised 1,200 of those marriages.

Meanwhile, several girls have appeared on television channels and approached law enforcement authorities to state that they were tricked into marrying their Chinese spouses on the assumption that they shared their religion. Some girls alleged that they were maltreated by their Chinese husbands who kept them in confinement to force them into prostitution.

The Chinese embassy in Islamabad, however, has said Pakistani brides are neither being trafficked to China nor are they being coerced into working in sex trade there. But the embassy has promised to carry out further investigations.

While the truth will take time to emerge, the details that are already known are hardly surprising. These are only a fresh reminder of the long-standing social problems and economic fault lines that routinely keep embarrassing us as a society and a state.

We all know that poverty and ignorance, coupled with a missing rule of law, are responsible for subjecting a huge number of Pakistanis to all kinds of exploitation. Bad governance has rendered our administrative system virtually dysfunctional. Our justice system, too, is so porous that even proven criminals, including transnational trafficking rackets, can pass through it with impunity. On top of that, our legal system denies the members of religious minorities even those protections that the majority community has. The law of the land, essentially, ignores their existence unless it needs to prosecute and punish them for some reason.

Even more importantly, such national embarrassment as has resulted from the trafficking allegations often fades away without eliciting a proper response from decision makers. Their focus remains on addressing public perceptions in the short run rather than finding long-term remedies for the deep-seated problems that cause that embarrassment in the first place. The present case underscores all this — and then some more.

Admittedly, women from a poor and socially marginalised minority community are always more likely to be abused than anyone else in the country. The fact that Christian family laws do not provide for the registration of Christian marriages with union councils and their certification by the National Database Registration Authority makes Christian women highly vulnerable to abuse. (Though the Supreme Court instructed the government on January 16, 2019 to remove this legal lacuna, no action has been taken yet). Successive governments have similarly failed to remove an anomaly between the Christian Marriage Act 1872 – which provides that a Christian girl can be married at the age of 14 – and other laws that have raised the marriageable age for girls to at least 16.

What further complicates these problems is the fact that the Punjab government allows self-proclaimed pastors and bishops to be registered under the Societies Act 1860. To become eligible for registration, they only need to show a following of 200 people. These clergymen are often unqualified to oversee religious ceremonies, including marriages, and thereby cause many problems such as the solemnisation of illegal marriages, the creation of theological divisions and a proliferation of superstitious practices. The government cannot do anything about them since no law exists that can regulate churches and clergy.

Then there are entrenched social and economic factors that keep the marginalised just that — marginalised. A 2018 survey carried out by the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women showed that over 80 per cent women belonging to minority religious communities participate in the province’s labour force — compared to a 36 per cent participation by women’s provincial population in general. This, obviously, means that most non-Muslim women have no option but to work – mostly in low-paying, manual jobs – in order to survive. The prospect of a marriage changing this situation for the better is often too tempting for them to dismiss.

The alleged trafficking of Pakistani girls to China and elsewhere, therefore, is not a one-off criminal incident that will go away once those involved in it have been tried and punished. It results from a combination of structural factors that include poverty, illiteracy and social and legal exclusion that turn large parts of the populace into fragmented and uninformed groups who can be exploited by anyone with an alluring idea to improve their lives.

When a news story breaks about that idea having gone rogue, a semblance of action emerges but then business as usual resumes soon — until another story emerges.

The writer is a human rights professional and a freelance journalist.

This article was published in the Herald's June 2019 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.