A year ago, to mark International Women’s Day, I wrote a blog post for the Independent. I wrote about a GP’s receptionist who refused to put up a poster advertising our advice service for women facing ‘honour’-based violence. The receptionist told one of our workers that the poster “might offend men”.
We were by no means surprised by the receptionist’s reaction. Later last year, we spoke to a student counsellor who said that while she had spoken to several sixth-form students who were facing forced marriage, she had never phoned the police, and instead simply offered the girls ‘a shoulder to cry on’.
Her response, and the receptionist’s, are indicative of a much broader problem and one that we encounter all the time: the idea that abuse of women and girls from minority communities is somehow acceptable because they are from a different ‘culture’.
Also on International Women’s Day last year, the government released an action plan on violence against women and girls which promised special training for police and pledged to raise awareness of ‘honour’ based violence within local authorities. We hoped that these measures would help to challenge the receptionist and others like her to think differently.
Yet, a whole year on, these commitments have not been delivered. What’s more, a recent review of the statutory guidance on forced marriage, which creates legal duties for public bodies to protect children and vulnerable adults from the practice, has revealed a widespread lack of awareness. For other forms of ‘honour’-based violence the picture is even bleaker.
‘Honour’-based violence, or HBV, is different from other types of abuse in that it is normally planned and carried out collectively, with the whole family and sometimes even the wider community playing a part. Police officers, social workers and other professionals don’t always understand this, and can wrongly assume that certain family members – mothers or sisters for example – are on the victim’s side. We’ve had cases where police or social services have put victims in greater danger by letting members of their family know that they have sought help. Some officers have even given a victim’s address to their family after they have escaped, plunging them back into danger.
Until last year, there were no figures on the prevalence of HBV in this country. To get these, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) sent freedom of information requests to the UK’s 52 police forces, asking how many incidents of HBV they recorded in 2010. We got data back from 39 forces, showing a total of 2823 incidents across the country. These incidents could include anything from threats, emotional blackmail or surveillance to assault, imprisonment, abduction, forced marriage, rape and even forced suicide and murder.
We were shocked that the problem was so widespread, and we hoped the government would be too. A Home Office spokesperson told channel 4 “we recognise the need for greater consistency on the ground to stop this indefensible practice” and went on to cite the commitments in the government’s action plan – commitments which have still not been implemented.
The government is also considering whether to make forcing someone to marry a criminal offence. IKWRO supports criminalisation, because it will send a tougher message to families and will give victims a stronger sense of their right to say no to forced marriage. However, we also know that it will only be effective if accompanied by wider improvements which ensure that victims of forced marriage and other forms of HBV get the right support from the moment they come forward.
We believe that a cross-government approach to HBV is needed. Ensuring a better response from frontline professionals like the police and social services is a must, but greater protection for victims of ‘honour’ violence in the criminal justice system, in immigration and asylum decisions and in foreign policy are also needed, as are efforts to change communities’ attitudes to violence against women and girls. We would like to see a government strategy aimed at tackling ‘honour’ based violence.
To mark International Women’s Day, the Home Office will be releasing an update of its violence against women and girls action plan. We hope that this updated plan will be much tougher on tackling HBV and that, this time, its promises will be delivered on.
As for us, we’re off to Number 10 Downing Street for a special International Women’s Day reception with the Prime Minister. We’ll be sending the message that for too long, issues like ‘honour’-based violence have been sidelined as ‘cultural’, and haven’t had the attention they deserve. We’ll be telling the Prime Minister loud and clear that it’s time to change that.
Blog published by The Independent to mark International Women’s Day, 8 March 2012.