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A Pakistani court has ruled that Arzoo Raja, a 13-year-old Christian girl who was kidnapped and forced to marry and convert to Islam, should be taken to a safe haven under the court’s protection.
Her abductor, 44-year-old Ali Azhar, was arrested on charges of kidnapping, perjury, and marriage with a minor, according to an AsiaNews report.
The Sindh court ruling is a reversal of an October 27 ruling in which the court determined that that Arzoo was 18 years old and converted to Islam of her own free will. Her family contested that ruling, saying the documents presented in court were forged.
The new ruling comes after a campaign by human rights activists, Christian groups, and women’s associations to urge the enforcement of the 2013 Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Actwhich was passed to protect minors from forced marriages.
The pontifical agency, Aid to the Church in Need, provided legal and paralegal aid to secure the Catholic girl’s rescue.
According to the AsiaNews report, the intervention of Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, president of the Pakistani People’s Party (PPP), was “especially important.”
Zardari had posted a message on Twitter on October 30 saying, “GOS (Government of Sindh) will approach the courts to review the #ArzooRaja underage marriage case, clear up any misunderstanding the honourable court may have, and do everything in their power to provide justice, and the PPP-led provincial government had passed the Sindh Child Marriages Restraint Act in 2013 and it will “continue to fight for it to be implemented.”
Arzoo is now safe in a protected place, confirmed Diego Saleh, vicar general and director of the Karachi Justice and Peace Commission.
Saleh thanked those responsible for Arzoo’s rescue, but said that there is still much work to be done to secure the rights of minors in Pakistan.
“Our struggle is not over, it is only at the beginning because there are still hundreds of Arzoos waiting for justice and a freedom, said Saleh.
According to a 2014 report by the Movement for Solidarity and Peace (MSP), about 1,000 women in Pakistan are forcibly converted to Islam every year, which includes nearly 700 Christian and 300 Hindu women. About 21% of girls in Pakistan are married before the age of 18 and 3% are married before the age of 15.