Forced marriage in the UK? It's a bigger problem than you think

To solve the problem, people must first acknowledge it, says Emily Dyer.

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Last month, seven British survivors of ‘honour’ abuse and forced marriage spoke out in public about their experiences. They explained how it felt to be abused by those closest to them – their family and community members – in the name of ‘honour’. This marked the UK’s first ever Day of Memory for victims of ‘honour’ killings.

The survivors spoke about how their families’ rules, or ‘honour’ codes, forbade them from doing things that many of us take for granted, from texting a boy to wearing make-up. They talked about how they were made to feel as though this was normal, and that the abuse that resulted from breaking these ‘honour’ codes was their own fault. Some talked about how they felt as though they had nowhere to go as no one outside their community was listening or willing to believe them.

As part of my latest report, Britain’s Forgotten Women: Speaking to Survivors of ‘Honour’-Based Abuse, these women provide a range of personal insights into what is a national problem that affects men, women and children. Earlier this month it was revealed that, from 2010 to 2014, UK police have recorded over 11,000 cases of ‘honour’-based violence including beatings, abductions and even murders in a new study by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO). This problem stretches across the country, with cases recorded in every single police force in the UK over the five year period.

Yet, given the nature of this vastly underreported crime, the number of cases is still likely to be far higher. Many victims do not go to the police or when they do, forced marriage is not identified or reported. Diana Nammi, Executive Director at IKRWO, said: “unfortunately the figures do not even show the extent of the problem. So many crimes are never reported because the perpetrators are the victim’s own families and/community members”. Last year, Karma Nirvana – a national charity that supports all those affected by ‘honour’ abuse – received over 8,268 calls to their helpline, the majority of which were from victims themselves. This is thought by the group to be “the tip of the iceberg, as this abuse remains largely hidden”.

Despite the abhorrent nature of this abuse, there are still those determined to derail progress being made in fighting against it. They claim that talking about this form of abuse is in some way alienating minorities due to the fact that it predominantly takes place within South Asian communities. ‘Honour’-based abuse is not limited to one religion or culture, but this is surely beside the point. These are British men and women who deserve the same rights and roles in society as everyone else regardless of belief or background. To deny someone the same rights as other British citizens as a result of their culture or religion is as about as intolerant as it gets.

In fact, according to survivors themselves, the misguided fear of offending communities has often stood in the way of protecting and supporting victims. A survivor who has asked to be referred to as  Layla, says that “Despite rumours circulating about my engagement at school, my teachers never intervened-they just saw it as being part of my cultural practice”. According to another survivor, Sara, “the fear of offending communities remains unresolved. What many don't realise is that religion itself does not condone forced marriage or ‘honour’ abuse.” Jasvinder Sanghera, CEO and founder of Karma Nirvana and a survivor herself, agrees: “cultural acceptance does not mean accepting the unacceptable. It cannot be right that some groups of people are not afforded the same level of protection compared to their white counter parts on the basis of difference.”

Mistakes are currently made when professionals do not have the awareness needed to identify signs of ‘honour’ abuse. This does not mean racial profiling. It means having an understanding of a very real problem and how it works. For example, common child protection procedures would advocate family reconciliation. However, given that perpetrators of ‘honour’ abuse and forced marriage are often family members this would likely to put the victim at far greater risk than before. Consider cases of paedophilia as an example – would any professional in their right mind send the victim back to the paedophile to work out their differences? Without knowing the basics about what ‘honour’ abuse is, professionals are likely to think they are simply following normal procedure and doing the right thing by the victim and their family.

These common mistakes in care are often due to a lack of awareness rather than willingness to help victims. There are police forces and schools who been proactive in seeking out or accepting training from groups like Karma Nirvana. However, there are still those who are dragging their feet. As a result, there is a gap in support for victims and survivors who are time and time again being let down by those whose job it is to protect and support them. It is only when achieving awareness becomes mandatory rather than an optional add-on that this trend can begin to reverse.

Emily Dyer is a research fellow at the Henry Jackson Society. She tweets as @erdyer1.