KARACHI: Pakistan’s southern province of Sindh on Monday became the country’s first region to give its small Hindu minority the right to register their marriages officially.
Non-Muslims make up only about three percent of the 190 million population of Pakistan, which was founded as a haven for the sub-continent's Muslims on independence from the British in 1947 with a promise of religious freedom to minorities.
But Hindus have had no legal mechanism to register their marriages. Christians, the other main religious minority, have a British law dating back to 1870 regulating their marriages.
“The objective of this bill is to provide a formal process of registration of marriage for Hindus,” said the bill passed by the legislature in Sindh, where most of Pakistan's Hindus live.
The law can be applied retroactively to existing marriages.
Without the law, Hindus say their women were easy targets for rape or forced marriage and faced problems in proving the legitimacy of their relationships before the law. Widows have been particularly disadvantaged.
Pakistan's Hindus and other minorities have faced a surge of violence in recent years as militant Islamists attack groups that do not share their strict interpretation of Islam.
All of Pakistan's minorities - Hindus, Christians, Ahmadis and even Shi'ite Muslims - say they feel the state fails to protect them and sometimes even tolerates violence against them.
Many complain the problem has become worse since Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif won an election in 2013. Sharif has close ties with Saudi Arabia, whose brand of conservative Wahhabi Islam is preached by many of the people who denounce minorities.
The U.S. Commission on Religious Freedom said in a recent report that conditions in Pakistan had "hit an all-time low" and governments had failed to adequately protect minorities and arrest those who attack or discriminate against them.
But many see the passage of the bill as a ray of hope.
“Now after the passage of this bill in the Sindh assembly, after 70 years, Hindus will also have a marriage certificate just like Muslims do," said Shahnaz Sheedi, the coordinator for South Asia Partnership Pakistan, a civil rights movement.
"We hope that bill will be soon adopted at the national level,” she said. The National Assembly in Islamabad has been considering such a bill it is still in committee.