Recently published figures on forced marriage confirm that the crime is vastly under-reported and that only a fraction of investigations result in prosecution. This comes as no surprise to me, and we can confidently expect the same to be true of “honour”-related crimes in general. Although there is continual outcry about the lack of prosecutions, there is little focus on the vast structural and cultural failures within the majority of police forces that make it so incredibly difficult for victims to feel confident enough in their ongoing safety to testify against their own families.
A review carried out in 2015 by HMIC into the effectiveness of police responses to “honour”-based violence (HBV) found that only three out of the 43 forces across England and Wales are prepared in all essential areas to deal with such crimes. Ten years on from the horrific murder of Banaz Mahmod, who approached the police no less than five times before she was brutally raped, murdered and buried in a back garden in Birmingham, it’s clear that lessons still haven’t been learned.
During my time as a member of the survivors’ advisory panel at the forced marriage and HBV charity Karma Nirvana – and in my day job working with the advocacy and campaigns team at a reproductive healthcare charity – I’ve come to appreciate the challenges in developing policy around this issue. Cuts to funding; a profound lack of awareness; the commonly apoplectic vitriol directed at communities that are disproportionately affected, and outright denial of the issue within those same communities all impact directly on our ability to address them.
In the years I’ve spent writing about my own experiences, I’ve consistently felt disheartened by these seemingly insurmountable challenges. When I was 12 years old, I was helped to escape “honour” abuse and the threat of forced marriage by siblings, the police and local authorities. It’s been 20 years since my escape, and I now do what I can to help influence change and improve support services.
Up until recently I believed that the best we could do was to continue campaigning for the prioritisation of HBV as an urgent focus issue within government and among local authority commissioners. But things have changed in the last year – I’m much more confident now that we have the expertise to deal with these challenges.
Throughout the course of my work, I’ve had the good fortune to come across individuals who can only be described as heroes, who combine innovation and expertise with tenacity and relentless dedication to tackling human rights abuses head-on, wherever they may occur.
Detective Sergeant Pal Singh has worked on some of the most high-profile “honour” killings in Britain to date, gaining a Metropolitan Police Service award for “Outstanding Individual Contribution to Victim Care” during HBV investigations. He is one of only a handful of people that I believe are truly able to understand the challenges we face and provide the real, practical solutions needed to tackle “honour” crime in all its forms. After spending many years bearing witness to the fatal consequences of inappropriate police responses to HBV, Singh has some important ideas on how to tackle the issue, which have yet to be acted upon.
He suggests that, to begin with, a specialist HBV unit covering the whole of London should be set up as a priority, which makes sense given that most recorded incidents take place there. Other high-risk areas include the West Midlands, West Yorkshire, Lancashire and Manchester. Underreporting of “honour” crime is not based on speculation, it is a reality deduced through analysis of poor and inappropriate recording of crime data.
Specialist teams would set a strong precedent in flagging and recording such cases with greater ease, while continuing to enable safe reporting by building strong relationships with affected communities through outreach programmes. This would also address a hugely problematic reliance on faith leaders, some of whom are complicit in the abuse.
On occasion, HBV victims are likely to be transferred between forces in order to maintain their ongoing safety, but protection cannot be guaranteed where there is a lack of leadership and wide variation in competency across forces. Given that reporting to the police in itself significantly escalates risk to the victim, this is a real concern, as is the importance of understanding the “one-chance rule”, a fundamental aspect of HBV safeguarding. Again, a specialist unit would have the expertise to deal with this. Singh says:
“It is now nationally recognised that the police do not have the ability to protect victims of HBV, or to prosecute their offenders. The creation of specialist units for the secondary investigations into ‘honour’-based violence in areas of high risk would undoubtedly help women who are voiceless and do not enjoy the support of their families or communities.”
Data obtained by the Iranian and Kurdish Women’s Rights Organisation (IKWRO) show that despite under-reporting, there are over 2,000 cases of “honour” crime recorded by UK police forces each year, and it’s clear that these figures do not reflect the full extent of the problem.
While development of a national standard of best practice is a worthwhile and important end-goal, we cannot rely solely on this in the short term, and we are certainly unable to accept the inevitability of more deaths and serious abuse as a consequence of police incompetency in the meantime. How many more people have to die before we start listening to the experts?
Shaheen Hashmat is a writer and campaigner against “honour”-based violence in all its forms, and she is the founding editor of Double Bind, an online platform featuring the voices of women with Muslim heritage working to promote secular values based on fundamental human rights for all. She tweets @tartantantrum.