The Losing Side, a Pakistani film documenting the issue of forced religious conversion in the Sindh province of Pakistan has won an award at the Cannes World Film Festival. It has won in the Best Human Rights Category for the month of November 2022. Made by Jawad Sharif, it is based on real events involving four victims of forced conversion.

The problem of organised forced conversion of very young and low caste Hindus and Christian girls to Islam has been in existence for long. Typically, poor and underage Hindu/Christian girls are kidnapped, forcefully converted to Islam and married off to middle-aged or even older Muslim men, with the police, the judiciary and the entire State turning a blind eye to it or even conniving at it.

This problem has been highlighted in the Pakistani print media and condemned by both Pakistani and international human rights organisations for long, but to little or no effect. In its annual report for 2021, the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) had said that at least 27 forced conversion cases were reported from Sindh every year, with a majority of victims belonging to "low-caste or scheduled-caste Hindus and Christians.

But it was left to Jawad Sharif to make a film on it and get it recognised by world cinema. Passionately interested in Pakistan's diverse cultures, Sharif is on a project to make films on how these cultures are preserved, often under great challenges.

Sharif is an alumnus of the Swedish Institute and the Institut Fur Auslandsbeziehunge, Germany. He is Festival Director of Asia Peace Film Festival and jury member of the Jaipur Library Academy Awards, India. Jawad's first documentary K-2 and The Invisible Footmen, as Cinematographer & Editor, had bowled over audiences with its breath-taking shots of Sherpas at the hardest mountain in the world.

He became the first Pakistani high-altitude filmmaker to film the mountain K-2. Four years later, his film Indus Blues created waves in both local and international media for initiating the much-needed debate on the radicalization of Pakistan.

The Losing Side documents the accounts of four Hindu girls of Sindh, Vahitoo, Simran, Keeran and Reena, who were victims of forced conversion and forced marriage. They belonged to the Dalit Meghwar castes living in rural Sindh.

In the film, activists, politicians and legal experts involved in these stories explain why such an obnoxious practice occurs regularly. The documentary sheds light on the legal, social and religious aspects of forced conversion in rural Sindh.

There are at least four million Hindus in Sindh now. With the wealthy and middle class Hindus fleeing Pakistan after it was carved out of India in 1947, Sindh was left with poor low caste Hindus ad Christians who eked out a living doing menial jobs that other communities considered unclean.

Even today, the Meghwars are the most marginalised community in Pakistan. The women of this community are at particular risk of being kidnapped by men from the majority Muslim community, converted and eventually married off to Muslims.

Writing in the London School of Economics Religion and Global Society blog, Qamar Rafiq, a Pakistani human rights advocate, states that on 26th November 2021, the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Pakistani Minorities published a report after an inquiry into abductions, forced conversions and marriages in Pakistan. The inquiry found that around 1,000 girls between the ages of 12 to 25 from the minorities were being forcibly converted to Islam in Pakistan every year and married to their abductors. The APPG described the situation as a "human-rights catastrophe."

The APPG report had pointed out that the government had not been implementing the Child Marriage Restraint Act 1929 and the Sindh Child Marriage Restraint Act 2013, which had raised the legal minimum age of marriage 18 in Sindh.

Rafiq notes that the phenomenon of forcible conversion has gone hand in hand with the rise in religious fanaticism and hate speech in Pakistan. Shockingly, a Pakistani Parliamentary Standing Committee rejected an Anti-Forced Conversion bill saying the "environment is unfavorable" for the enactment of such a law, Rafiq points out.

The police often refuse to record First Information Reports (FIRs) on abduction for forcible conversion. "Victims are largely left in the custody of their kidnappers throughout the trial process, where they are subject to rape and forced to claim that the conversion or marriage was consensual," Rafiq says.

Giving an example, Rafiq cites the case of Arzoo Raja. "Arzoo was 13 when she disappeared and after two days, police reported back that she has embraced Islam to get married with a 40-year-old Muslim man. Arzoo Raja's marriage certificate said she was 18 at the time of her marriage to certify that the marriage was lawful."

Importantly, Islamic clerics believe that converting someone is a pious act that will bring rewards, no matter what methods are employed to secure it. They ignore the view of Maulana Tahir Ashrafi, a religious cleric and Chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, who is propagating the view that forced conversion and marriages have no place in Islam.

The Pakistani justice system is generally discriminatory towards women from religious minorities. This means that the victims and their families are scared of going to court. In any case, they are too poor to employ a competent lawyer or any lawyer for that matter. "At any rate, in most cases, the production of a conversion and marriage certificate is enough evidence to pardon the abductors", Rafiq points out.

However, sometimes the court stands by the victim. Shaikh Abdul Rasheed, an academic, cites the case of abducted girl Mahek Kumari in this regard. Mehek Kumari was 15 years old according to the evidence and documents submitted in the court of the Additional Sessions Judge-II Jacobabad. The court took cognizance of this and nullified her marriage using the Act.

The Hindu Marriage Act 2017 was passed to regulate Hindu marriages, but it did not include in its purview, the phenomenon of forced marriages and conversions. This is a major lacuna in the context of the situation in rural Sindh.

There is the economic hardship angle also, which needs to be stressed. Families which had lost their daughters to abduction and conversion not only undergo personal trauma but economic loss because these girls had been working in farms and had brought in an income as laborers in other places.

In conclusion, Rafiq says: "If you want the truth about how forced conversions operate in Pakistan, ditch the Constitutional guarantees and parliamentary inquiries and head to the victims of forced conversion. You will find mourning parents suffering in silence with intense loneliness, mental health problems, and sleepless nights which sometimes include hospitalisation and emotional numbness. You will find victims' families bearing the pain of covering huge legal costs, and socio-religious hostility."