The UK was instrumental in ensuring the inclusion of child, early and forced marriage in the Commonwealth communiqué. We deliver our commitments through the Forced Marriage Unit and through our work to end child marriage in developing countries. While there are highly publicised instances of forced marriage and forced conversion, we do not have evidence that this is prevalent at scale. Where it happens, it is context-specific.
My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his Answer but, according to the Aurat Foundation, 1,000 Hindu and Christian women and girls are abducted, forcibly converted and married off in Pakistan every year. In India, there are similar allegations of Muslim girls being forcibly converted to Hinduism and married off. Of course, this has also been a feature of Boko Haram’s tactics. Despite the last four communiqués making reference to early, child and forced marriage, none has addressed investigating the interrelationship with forced religious conversion. As chair of the Commonwealth for the next two years, will Her Majesty’s Government commission the necessary research to understand this complex relationship and investigate potential solutions?
I am grateful for my noble friend’s question and I pay tribute to her work with the Commonwealth Initiative for Freedom of Religion and Belief, which has had a significant impact. I draw attention to the very substantial measures on freedom of religion and belief—led by my noble friend Lord Ahmad—that we have already announced, such as a £12 million fund through Aid Connect to look specifically at this. On the specific instance of Pakistan that my noble Friend mentioned, one of the things that we were clear about in Pakistan’s UN review last year was the importance of protecting minority rights and the possible need for an independent commission on such rights. We are doing significant things but we have to be clear that this is not only about the communiqué. The Commonwealth charter talks about the importance of,
“tolerance, respect, understanding, moderation and religious freedom which are essential to the development of free and democratic societies”.
That is why we will continue to hold other states to account and seek to live up to that.
My Lords, child marriage is a global issue. I do not know whether the Minister knows this, but I was very surprised to learn that over 200,000 girls under the age of 16 have got married in the United States, where, in many states, it is still legal. In the Commonwealth, records show that 8.8 million girls have been forcibly married in this way. What progress has been made to eliminate this very harmful practice which, as the Minister said, breaches the rights of these girls? During the CHOGM conference, what further promotion was made of the Kigali Declaration?
We have a major programme which is accelerating action against child and early forced marriage. We have been leaders in this area and put significant resource into it, and it has been engaging. We need to remind people not about the need for new declarations and new initiatives but of the fact that, 70 years ago, this matter was in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: Article 16.2 states that there must be consent between the spouses. We just need to hold people to what they have already signed up to.
My Lords, given that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, said in answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Berridge, that there was not compelling evidence, will he undertake at least to look at the Aurat Foundation’s evidence of 1,000 forced conversions every year and other evidence from Pakistan that suggests that between 20 and 30 women from Hindu backgrounds are forcibly converted every single month? In citing, as he has done, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, will he point Commonwealth countries to Article 18, which states quite emphatically that everyone has the right to believe, not to believe or to change their beliefs and that no one should be forcibly converted?
That is why we are doing so much in this area. We have done work through the Magna Carta Fund at the Foreign Office; we have new work coming on stream now. This is a fundamental area. Why are we doing it? It is simply because inclusive societies tend to be the most peaceful. Societies which empower and protect women tend to be the most prosperous. If you are in development, that is what you want to happen.
My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness on translating the communiqué into action. One thing that can be done is to support the Commonwealth Office for Civil and Criminal Justice Reform. That would mean member countries translating commitments in the charter into legislative changes, so that people’s rights can be protected. What are the Government doing to ensure that the Commonwealth Secretariat receives support for expanding that work?
Clearly, it is a very important stream of work. The responsibility for implementing what has been signed up to by member states in the communiqué of course lies with the member states, but it is also right that we should be involved in the ways that I have outlined, through the various programmes and initiatives, to support countries to build more inclusive societies. We will continue to do that.
My Lords, as the UK is taking over the chairmanship of the Commonwealth for the next two years, and given the success of the Forced Marriage Unit, will my noble friend the Minister commit to sharing this model with Commonwealth countries where the level of forced marriages is particularly high?
I often think that we need a certain degree of humility in this. We have been wrestling with the issue of forced marriage within our own communities here in the UK. There was a significant conviction in Birmingham just a couple of days ago, with someone sentenced to four and a half years in prison. If we engage with people at all levels, both at home and abroad, we can try to give young people the opportunities that we seek for them so that they might realise their full potential.
I presume that the noble Baroness is referring to the Forced Marriage Unit. That is an interesting point. The unit is situated in the Home Office but works jointly with the Foreign Office. I am not sure whether that happens. I will look into it and perhaps I may respond to the noble Baroness in writing.