For nearly a year, Nayab Gill has been forced to live with her kidnapper. 

In early 2021, 13-year-old Nayab and her father were approached by Saddam Hayat, a 30-year-old married Muslim man and father of four. Hayat offered to train Nayab in his beauty salon and give her a much-needed job. For weeks, Hayat faithfully picked up Nayab, brought her to his salon, gave her lessons in cosmetology, and brought her home each day. 

On May 20, however, Nayab never came home.

Nayab’s frantic parents searched for their child for over a week with no success. Eventually, local police contacted the Gill family, informing them that their daughter had registered as a willful convert to Islam and had married a Muslim man—Hayat. In reality, Hayat and six others had kidnapped Nayab from her home, raped her, forced her to convert to Islam, and coerced her into marriage.

After a long legal struggle and many nights spent trapped in her abuser’s home, Nayab’s case finally went to court. Although her parents presented her birth certificate, which proved she was a minor, the judge accepted Hayat’s forged documents—documents that claimed he had recently celebrated his 18th anniversary with his 19-year-old bride. Shockingly, the court ruled in the kidnapper’s favor, declaring that Nayab had willingly converted to Islam and married Hayat. At the ruling, Nayab’s parents broke down in tears as she was led by police back into the arms of her abuser.

Sadly, this horrific account is a reality for hundreds of Christian and Hindu girls in Pakistan. Although there are no official records, it is estimated that over 1,000 cases like Nayab’s occur in Pakistan every year. Despite the clear human rights violation, the practice of forced conversion and marriage still thrives in Pakistan.

The newly-updated report from Family Research Council, “Combatting Forced Marriage of Young Women in Pakistan,” exposes the ongoing tragedy in Pakistan and presents ways in which the U.S. government can begin to address the problem.

The U.S. State Department designates Pakistan as a Country of Particular Concern (CPC) for its “particularly severe” religious freedom violations—and with good reason. Religious minorities hold a marginalized position in Pakistani society, a relic of the former Indian caste system.

The tension between religious groups provides a convenient means by which Muslim perpetrators can protect themselves from just punishment. Although the perpetrators of forced conversions and marriages are in violation of Pakistani law, the religious dynamics of Pakistan are such that a ruling in favor of a Christian or Hindu victim can often be seen as an attack on Islam itself. This creates an environment in which perpetrators can target their victims and commit crimes with impunity. 

When local police are informed of forced conversion and marriage cases, they are often reluctant to help find victims or bring perpetrators to justice. At times, authorities have even been hostile toward the victim’s family and often bend to the pressures of the extremist or influential abductors. Police have also interfered with investigations by discouraging Christian and Hindu families from filing formal complaints.

Pakistani courts aggravate this tragedy when they neglect to follow fair legal procedures. Investigations into the circumstances of an alleged conversion rarely take place; instead, the existence of a conversion certificate—which is often forged—is taken as sufficient proof. Furthermore, the threat of Islamist mob violence often makes judges afraid to do the right thing.

The issue of forced conversion and forced marriage in Pakistan is tragic. As a long-standing leader in upholding international human rights, the United States faces a critical moment. Continued silence will only embolden those who wish to violate human dignity and restrict religious freedom.

By taking a few simple steps, the U.S. government can go a long way toward holding the perpetrators—and the government that tolerates them—accountable. To start, American diplomats should raise this issue with their Pakistani counterparts. Congress can pass a resolution condemning this practice and calling on the Pakistani government to address it. The United States should also apply targeted sanctions on Pakistani officials responsible for committing or tolerating human rights abuses.

Forced conversion and marriage in Pakistan are enabled by social discrimination, corrupt authorities, and unjust courts of law. America’s diplomacy with Pakistan should address all these concerns. The United States must demonstrate an unwavering commitment to international human rights and advocate for the defenseless. Addressing this tragedy in Pakistan is a good place to start.

Arielle Del Turco is assistant director of the Center for Religious Freedom. Hannah Waters is the research assistant for the Center for Religious Liberty.