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Shortcomings in Addressing ‘Honour’ Based Violence in the UK

By India Southcott

On September 15, 2023, the UK government rejected calls to officially define ‘honour’ based violence (HBV), indicative of an ongoing failure to recognise one of the most severely underreported forms of domestic violence in the country. Official data from the Home Office reveals that, in the year ending March 2023, there were 2,905 recorded HBV-related offences in England and Wales. Whilst this is already a troubling rate, many experts suggest that most official statistics vastly underestimate and underreport the true extent of HBV. For instance, the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKROW) has raised alarming concerns about the reporting mechanisms for HBV incidents. In a 2014 report, they found that 1 in 5 police forces fail to report HBV cases appropriately. HBV helpline Karma Nirvana has contacted 120,000 since its inception in 2008, showing the extent to which police fail to report and support those experiencing HBV.

What Makes HBV a Pressing Issue?

As the government rejected calls to define ‘honour’ based violence, legally, there is no official basis for what constitutes HBV in the UK. IKROW described HBV as ‘Murders within the framework of collective family structures, in which predominantly women are mutilated, imprisoned, forced to commit suicide and killed for actual or perceived immoral behaviour’. The circumstances triggering HBV are not culturally specific, evident across countries, cultures, and religions. What is consistent is that despite the label, there is nothing close to ‘honour’ in abuse. This type of violence is most likely to start early in the lives of young people (most often women) in their family homes, situating HBV in the broader picture of violence against women and girls.

SafeLives insight data has found that HBV victims are 13% more likely to be at risk of serious harm or homicide, and they are far more likely to be abused by multiple people, with 54% experiencing this. Alongside this, victims can be very hard to access as they are more likely to have recently immigrated to the UK, often relying on an abuser for their visa status or facing a language barrier in accessing support— over 26% of HBV victims required an interpreter. Safelives also notes that despite the disproportionate effect on women (which this policy report focuses on) HBV is experienced by both men and women, with factors such as sexuality and disability putting some men at greater risk.

Inaccurate Data & Lack of Governmental Responsibility

This failure to define HBV officially informs other issues as it creates difficulty in data collection, which is especially concerning as proper identification and recording of HBV is vital for effectively safeguarding victims. In the absence of adequate measures to tackle underreporting, the true scale of the problem remains veiled, impeding the ability of policy to provide assistance where it is most needed. Additionally, Honour Based Abuse is not widely recognised as a form of domestic abuse. Until 2020, it was not a requirement for police to report HBV, and despite its recent inclusion, a culture of ignorance remains. Experts argue that the government has also adopted a ‘siloed’ approach to tackling HBV, Karma Nirvana note that the government mostly only acknowledge the dangers of Forced marriage and female genital mutilation. This has repercussions on how HBV is recognised and understood on the national level.

No Dedicated Agency

Unlike other forms of abuse, which have dedicated agencies and straightforward legislative prevention, HBV is tackled by a cross-agency approach, requiring the collaboration of the Forced Marriage Unit and various social and law enforcement services, as well as non-governmental agencies. Law enforcement and social services often misreport potential HBV cases, therefore establishing a single agency with a profound understanding of HBV could dispel misconceptions.

Cultural Stigma

Much legislation has a distorted cultural sense of race, culture or religion, artificially removing associations with broader violence against women and girls and the structural gender inequality by which it is informed. In the case of law enforcement and social services, cultural sensitivity and competence gaps among officers can result in mishandling cases, as officers may not fully grasp the cultural and societal nuances at play in HBV situations. Overemphasis on cultural sensitivity can inadvertently enable the perpetuation of violence, while a heavy-handed approach can alienate communities and deter reporting.

Prioritising Effective Data Collection and Analysis

Practical training can allow for effective data collection as greater clarity and less misinformation ensure those dealing with HBV can promptly identify the nuances of HBV and correctly report it. Effective reporting means that a robust data collection system for tracking HBV can be established, which could include comprehensive information on victims, perpetrators, and outcomes. This data should play a pivotal role in shaping policy making. Furthermore, the introduction of mandatory reporting requirements for professionals who encounter HBV is vital. Failure to comply with reporting obligations should carry consequences.

Specialised training and Awareness campaigns

Individuals dealing with cases of honour-based violence should undergo specialised training to ensure their ability to identify HBV-related incidents promptly. This training should emphasise the unique challenges faced by individuals affected by HBV, enabling professionals to approach cases with sensitivity and understanding. Local authorities should mandate awareness as part of the curriculum and PSHE. Community Outreach Programs can engage with local organisations, religious institutions, and community leaders to raise awareness and encourage dialogue about HBV. Encouraging open discussions within communities can help break down stigmas, promote early intervention, and empower individuals to seek help when needed.

Accessible aid at a local and national level

On a local level, policy solutions should include enhancing hotlines and support services, ensuring that they are well-publicised and targeting individuals who are especially marginalised. This could, for example, involve ensuring those with language barriers can access a support worker who can properly communicate with them, alongside employing former victims of HBV who can offer lived insight. In the context of nationwide legislation, individuals facing visa dependency and immigration status complications should receive compassionate consideration to ensure they are not forced to depend on those who may exploit their vulnerable situation.

Overall, Honour Based Abuse is a pervasive yet under-acknowledged issue, artificially dissociated from wider violence against women and girls. This is the result of a nuanced interplay of factors, but critically, it is perpetuated by government legislation in the UK. If the government were to dispel culturally biased narratives, for example, by introducing a standard definition and more effective and targeted training, this is likely to facilitate greater awareness of HBV. Therefore, this should be considered an essential first step in de-stigmatising HBV, as targeting the misconceptions which plague governmental agencies and highlighting HBV as a legislative issue recognised in parliament is likely to incite a change in public viewpoints.

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